From New York Times bestselling author Owen King, who “writes with witty verve” (Entertainment Weekly) comes a “richly imagined” (The New York Times) Dickensian fantasy of illusion and charm where cats are revered as religious figures, thieves are noble, scholars are revolutionaries, and conjurers are the most wonderful criminals you can imagine.
It begins in an unnamed city nicknamed “the Fairest”, it is distinguished by many things from the river fair to the mountains that split the municipality in half; its theaters and many museums; the Morgue Ship; and, like all cities, but maybe especially so, by its essential unmappability.
Dora, a former domestic servant at the university has a secret desire—to understand the mystery of her brother's death, believing that the answer lies within The Museum of Psykical Research, where he worked when Dora was a child. With the city amidst a revolutionary upheaval, where citizens like Robert Barnes, her lover and a student radical, are now in positions of authority, Dora contrives to gain the curatorship of the half-forgotten museum only to find it all but burnt to the ground, with the neighboring museums oddly untouched. Robert offers her one of these, The National Museum of the Worker. However, neither this museum, nor the street it is hidden away on, nor Dora herself, are what they at first appear to be. Set against the backdrop of an oddly familiar and wondrous city on the verge of collapse, Dora’s search for the truth will unravel a monstrous conspiracy and bring her to the edge of worlds.
Reading Group Guide
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This reading group guide for The Curator includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
During a time of revolution, in a city divided by more than just the river that splits it, where student radicals fight for change, working-class men and women speak out against corruption, and cats hold places of distinction, Dora hopes to uncover the mystery of her brother’s death by probing the secrets that lie in the Society for Psykical Research. Unexpectedly, Dora’s investigation leads to harrowing discoveries that call into question everything she knows and will affect the fate of the city.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Consider the lengthy Charles Dickens epigraph that opens the novel. Discuss why the author selected this passage to open The Curator.
2. The novel is organized in three sections: “New People,” “City of Cats,” and “The Curator.” What is distinct about each of these sections? How would your reading experience differ if the author had not structured the story in this way?
3. When Robert takes Dora to have her curatorship of the Society for Psykical Research approved, he feels the need to “[pledge] that she [is] a patriot” and asks Sergeant Van Goor to put it in writing so that Dora has “something more official” to avoid “trouble or confusion” (page 7). These subtle descriptions nod to the tension in the city. How else does the author build this feeling of unease throughout the novel?
4. What is the significance of the National Museum of the Worker? What does it represent as an institution and as a symbol in the context of the novel?
5. Think about what gives rise to revolutions in our own world. Why do you think the conflict between Joven and Minister Westhover was the spark that ignited the revolution against the Crown’s government?
6. Though Robert and Dora are lovers, they both have doubts and reservations about one another. What do you think about them as a couple? Do you have any expectations about the future of their relationship?
7. In the world of The Curator, cats are so revered that the phrase “May a cat smile on you” is a common blessing. Discuss what role cats play throughout the novel and why they are significant figures.
8. In the chapter “Something Is About to Happen,” a member of the Society for Psykical Research draws parallels between “conjuring,” “storytelling,” and “thievery,” essentially saying that conjuring is “stealing faith” to make an audience believe in an “impossible tale” (page 31). How does one succeed at making their audience believe in the unbelievable? How does the author succeed with this in the novel?
9. Even though everything we learn about Ambrose is in retrospect, he has a strong influence on Dora in the present. What does Ambrose as a character add to the novel? How does he improve our understanding of the world and of Dora? Imagine how the story might differ were Ambrose still alive.
10. Ike has feelings of unrequited love for Dora and is all too happy to run errands for her. Discuss the imbalance of their friendship. Did you anticipate anything changing between them? Was there an outcome you were hoping for?
11. The author makes a point of including several named secondary characters—Bet, Gid, Elgin, Marl, Rei, and others—one of whom has an entire chapter named after him. Why do you think the author chooses to highlight these individuals’ experiences? What would we lose from the story if we no longer had this chapter or these details?
12. The author includes excerpts of a fictional play titled A Little Wolf Box by Aloysius Lumm. Why do you think the author chose to include this? What does this play within the novel add to your understanding of the world? Who might the characters in the play represent?
13. Lionel Woodstock and Jonas Mosi are two of three chairmen of the provisional government.
Talk about each of them and their roles as leaders as well as their relationship. How do their choices influence the events of the novel?
14. Captain Anthony is a terrifying individual whom Dora can hear torturing people every night in the former embassy near the Museum of the Worker. Their eventual confrontation brings up questions of morality and punishment. What are the implications of their discussion? How does this exchange relate to other moments and characters?
15. Between the vestibule, the morgue ship, and the cats, what did you think might turn out to be the most important fantastical element? Did your theories match the outcomes? At what point did you realize that these elements were more than meets the eye?
16. The Curator is a story of surprises, secrets, and mysteries revealed. What events surprised you the most by the end of the novel? Go back in the text to uncover instances of foreshadowing you may have initially missed.
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Visit a museum near you! Bonus points if it’s a wax figure museum.
2. If you have a pet cat, read The Curator aloud to them! If you don’t have a cat, consider visiting your local animal shelter to immerse yourself in their company.
3. Read The Killer of Little Shepherds by Douglas Starr, which served as the inspiration for the Morgue Ship.
Owen King is the author of The Curator, Double Feature, and We’re All in This Together: A Novella and Stories. He is the coauthor of Sleeping Beauties and Intro to Alien Invasion and the coeditor of Who Can Save Us Now? Brand-New Superheroes and Their Amazing (Short) Stories. He lives in upstate New York with his family.
"Marin Ireland navigates an ever-expanding world of characters and details. In a mysterious city recently devastated by conflict, museums and universities have been turned to rubble. Dora finds work as a curator at the last remaining museum, where she seeks her long-lost brother. In the city, cats are highly revered. King's audiobook unfolds in a dreamlike fashion, with much character introduction and a myriad of short, significant moments. As the story progresses, the nature of the broken city and its main players emerges, capturing timely themes of systemic oppression. Throughout, Ireland does exceptional work in a commanding performance that provides a vivid canvas for listeners. She gives an expert’s touch to the complicated proceedings."
– Winner of an AudioFile Earphones Award, AudioFile Magazine