Genre: Middle Grade Horror
Year Release: 2022
Source: Library Audiobook
Listened to the audiobook
Content warnings: missing children, reference to a dead parent
Gentle spoilers for previous entries in the Small Spaces series
Empty Smiles picks up precisely where Dark Waters leaves off: with Ollie missing in an alternate dimension where no one else can see her either. It’s just her, the Smiling Man and a bunch of mannequins, some of which are clowns, some of which are others kidnapped like her. Brian, Coco, and Ollie have to work together across dimensions to keep their families in tact while the Smiling Man himself finds an enemy he can’t contend with.
A perfect conclusion that tugged at my tear ducts and heart strings, where family born and found is the central hero of an otherwise terrifying story.
If rictus grins, clowns, and dolls that are actually people all along terrify you, this book is a treat (or a trick? Depends on your preference). The imagery is terrifying, with something like jump scares ending every chapter. I found myself chilled, and the atmosphere and tone are perfect for that carnival tone. In terms of presentation of the fair itself, there are carnies and fun houses, but Arden avoids bringing in the ableist freak show trope if that’s something of a concern.
I love how Brian, Coco, and Ollie’s character arcs come full circle in the end. The themes of friendship, family, and trust despite trickery all shine through here. Chess comes back as a motif as a motif of that character growth and the shining light where the child characters actually do stand a chance against their villains. The adults aren’t useless per se, but they are very grounded in the world they perceive as real, especially when presented with so much evidence to the contrary. But the antagonism is handled with such respect, where the kids maintain their autonomy and the adults are given much grace to be given.
This entire quartet shapes up to be perfect for Halloween and, with each other having a distinctly seasonal theme, incredible for scaring yourself all year round.
Pingback: October 2022 Reading Recap | Jo Writes Fantasy