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Empty Smiles: 12/08/22
Empty Smiles by Katherine Arden (2022) finishes the Small Spaces middle grade horror series. The Smiling Man has one last game for Coco, Brian, and Phil. At stake is Ollie's freedom as well as the release of numerous children kidnapped and transformed by a sinister traveling carnival.
The previous volumes were very focused, being set in one location with all the children working together. This one is different as the Smiling Man tries to divide and conquer. Ollie for the majority of the novel is separated from the others, and presumed drowned. Another one ends up injured. Even the parents, who were on board for the third book are separated as their homes are threatened.
These novels are all short, coming in around two hundred pages. Empty Smiles, though, has more plot and questions than the previous three combined.
First is the train that has been serving as Ollie's home since the lake. It seems to be akin to the Infinity Train or a Hell Train but there isn't time to for Ollie to explore. Nor is it ever really established how the train relates to the carnival beyond expecting the reader to know that carnivals often travel by train. A cursed carnival probably comes by a cursed train.
Next there are the children already imprisoned by the carnival clowns. How do they relate to the Smiling Man? Are they part of something bigger or is the Smiling Man now somehow their prisoner too?
Finally the book ends with Ollie realizing that the Smiling Man is as much a victim of his games as the children are. Did their first encounter the previous October somehow entwine their fates? What makes Ollie et al different from the other victims?
As this book is the end, I suspect none of these questions will be explored further. I think instead a deeper re-read of the four is in order.
Like the previous three, this novel sits on the Road Narrative Spectrum. The novel ends midway between the two extremes, with the children now as marginalized travelers (66). Their destination is home (66): a return to home being a safe place and the rescue of Ollie and others so they can return home. Their route is the cornfield, described through out the novel as the place where the carnival sets up in each town (FF).