Hello dear reader(s) and welcome to another (quite spoiler-y) episode of Nessa reads and reviews. Spooky season is upon us, so in today’s instalment I’ll do my very best to write a concise and coherent review of Katherine Arden’s horror series Small Spaces. Most likely I will fail on both fronts, but we’ll see how it goes yeah. 🙂 As I mentioned in the very first sentence of this text there will be spoilers in this review. If I can, I usually do my very best to avoid spoilers while writing a review, but sometimes they are necessary. The most important thing is that everyone is aware of this fact at the very beginning so they can skip ahead to the opinion part of the text, or skip the text entirely. Ye have been warned. 🙂
I believe most readers know Katherine Arden from her amazing and really popular Winternight Trilogy. I reviewed the Croatian translation of the series on the blog this year, you can find that review (in Croatian) here – there’s pictures of all 3 Croatian books and quite frankly the whole book design is very lovely, intricate and thoughtfully done. Although, I really loved the Winternight Trilogy and I enjoyed reading it… I have to confess I like the Small Spaces series more. I know I’m probably in the minority when it comes to this, but Small Spaces is just my jam! The series is a perfect blend of horror, mystery, fantastic elements, brilliantly paced storytelling, a fascinating villain and interesting main characters. So far the series consist of 2 books: Small Spaces and Dead Voices, and 2 more books are planned. Each book focuses on one season: Small Spaces is set in autumn, Dead Voices in winter, and according to the author books 3 and 4 will be set in spring and summer respectively.
Here be some spoilers!
The series follows 3 main protagonist – the eleven-year olds Ollie Adler, Coco Zintner and Brian Battersby and the events that that lead to the confrontation with the villain of the series – The Smiling Man. Both books are told through the point of view of the children; the 1st is told exclusively through Ollie’s point of view, while in the 2nd book is told through Ollie’s and Coco’s point of view. Hopefully in the 3rd instalment of the Small Spaces series we’ll get to experience the plot from Brian’s point of view. From the very beginning of the story it’s obvious that the children’s characters are well thought of. Each character has their own distinguishing personality, interest, but also the interests and traits that they all share. This really comes to the forefront in Dead Voices where the plot is narrated through the 2 girl’s point of view: they have things in common, but are 2 very different people who get along well with each other regardless of their differences.
Among the interesting things about the story and character development in this series is the fact that the children despite their various interests, physical abilities and character traits manage to get along and be friends. Of course the shared experience of trauma of facing The Smiling Man helps to solidify their friendship, but they do remain and build on their friendship despite their differences, and they do find other interests that bind them. Another thing that I really loved about the children is how they recognise when they made a mistake, or act on their preconceptions they try to correct their mistake and learn from it. The 1st book in the series is full of great examples of that, especially when Ollie misjudges Brian’s and Coco’s abilities and works hard to get past her preconceived notions about people and their abilities.
In addition to the interesting and well developed protagonist, Katherine Arden presents an equally well thought of and fascinating villain – The Smiling Man. This may sound shallow, and daft, but I was really pleased that he wasn’t described as the stereotypical portrait of a villain: either a sinister and ugly looking old man, or you know the devilishly handsome evil dude… *rolleyes* The Smiling Man is described a man with a gentle voice and a nice smile. Totally ordinary bloke, nothing special about him. Nice guy™. Except he’s not, but you don’t realise this in time, so you have to fight your way out of the psychopath’s grasp. Much more disturbing when you sit down and think about it… Mind you just don’t let your mind wander into more disturbing places regarding this descriptions, it will freak you out and gross you out in equal measure. But that is neither here, nor there, and it certainly isn’t what I was planning on delving into when I started writing my musings about The Smiling Man. Reading too much into it most likely…
To get back on track I’d like to draw your attention to the fantasy elements of this horror series. In both books the children are drawn into the supernatural world by crossing a threshold of some sorts. And however strange and scary that world behind the fog or mirror is, it still has rules (even if they are not completely known to us) and words are important there and have power. It’s fascinating how sometimes you need the supernatural, the strange world of upside down to make you aware that words have power, and that their meaning and power depends on not just what you say, but how you say it.
Here there be out of context quotes from the books!
However, it’s also important to listen to sage advice that one will receive along the way, so you can get out of Dodge safe and sound. I’ll list some of them for fun and educational purposes along with an attempt of witty commentary. The first 2 quotes are from Small Spaces and the last one is from Dead Voices.
“You don’t waste October sunshine.” – Won’t necessarily help you survive the Mirror Universe 😀 but sound advice nonetheless.
“Avoid large places at night. Keep to small.” – They really should drill this into the mind of every horror movie protagonist. Along with don’t go into the dark basement/attic and turn the fudgeing lights on yer dumbarse! Oh and the never, ever split up too!
“Don’t listen to the voices. (…) The dead voices. All the dead voices. Stay out of closets. And don’t look in the mirror.” – Sound advices all around. One must always have in mind that dead people, just like the living, don’t always tell the truth. 😉 See rule no. 3 for the Ouija board.
Before I finish I’d like to dedicate a few paragraphs to the gorgeous cover art of Small Spaces and Dead Voices. Both covers were made by Matt Saunders, a London based illustrator. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram, he has some dazzlingly beautiful works on his Instagram! But getting back to the cover art of the series, both cover are at the same time spoiler-y and not spoiler-y. I know, this doesn’t make sense, but there is method to my madness I promise. 🙂
Here there be spoilers!
To demonstrate, let’s focus on the cover art for Small Spaces first. When you look at the cover before reading the book you’ll probably assume that Saunders chose to illustrate a scene from the book. And you’re right, it is a scene from the book, but not just a scene from the book. It has elements from the whole plot and I realised this after I’ve read the book. Revolutionary I know. 😀 Cool tones of lilac, purple and blue are used to depict an autumnal twilight. The yellow school bus full of children that broke down in the middle of the road is at the centre, in the background a cornfield maze filled with scarecrows with a barn and a farmhouse in the distance. Closest to the reader is the entrance to the forest with a creepy smiling scarecrow tied to a dead tree whose branches spell out the title of the book. Which is a genius way to make the letter creepy AF. As I already mentioned, all these elements combined together in this particular way don’t just illustrate a particular scene from the book, they also uncover parts of the plot of Small Spaces. But they do so in a very subtle way, so the eureka moment happens when you finish reading the book and start looking at the cover and thinking about the illustration.
Likewise, a similar pattern can be seen in the cover art for Dead Voices. Elements from the whole book, not just one scene are reflected in the cover art. The colours are cooler, reflecting the winter setting of the plot. A lone car is driving through a snowstorm towards an old creepy looking mansion, the only light is coming through 2 windows – making the house look like a living organism that’s surveilling the space… Smoke rises from the chimney and whirls in the air in a threatening manner. The elements of smoke and the snowstorm are used to spell the title of the book. Looking and feeling ghostly just like the haunted house has something to say… Or spoil the plot. 🙂
At last here cometh the conclusion!
To conclude this rather rambling review that was sort of structured, but all over the place I’ll give you my final thoughts about this series. Small Spaces is an excellent book and could have easily been a standalone horror book for children of all ages. Although we get the story from the point of view of one character the plot, the rest of the protagonist are well rounded and time and effort was clearly put into character development. The villain of the story is fascinating and is more than creepy once you tear yourself from the plot in order to think about how his character was described and developed. The story is fast paced and you can read it in one sitting. It’s that good, and most importantly it doesn’t lose its power when you reread it.
Dead Voices is a brilliant sequel that expands on the universe and characters, gives more mystery, makes you ask more questions and generally makes you want more stories from this series like yesterday! Dead Voices can be read on its own, without reading Small Spaces beforehand, because the author gives the gist of the plot by weaving it into the structure of the sequel. But do read Small Spaces before Dark Voices, it will be much more enjoyable! What I liked about Dead Voices is that it gave us another point of view, enabled the readers to see the events from another character’s perspective. By expanding the universe Katherine Arden leaves the readers with so much questions about The Smiling Man, ghosts, and the universe of Small Spaces in general. It’s a deliciously fast paced horror with a good ending, perfect for reading for the spooky season or a cold winter night.
If you haven’t read this series I encourage you to pick it up. If you have kids who are going to primary school and like scary stories I wholeheartedly recommend that you give this series a go and read it with your kids. Mayhap not read it before bedtime eh… It’s not gore-y or extremely scary, but it’s always good to avoid nightmares filled with scarecrows, ghosts and creepy Nice Guys™ who are actually Smiling Men. That didn’t traumatise anyone… 😀
That’s all for today’s review dear reader(s). I hope you enjoyed it. Do let me know here in the comment section or on Twitter (you can find me @NarratriceNessa I tend to ramble there on books, writing process, history, makeup and other random stuff) if you’ve read this series or are you planning to. Did you like it? Not liked? Was scared shitless or laughed at the face of danger? 🙂 Until next time dear reader(s)!