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THE CURATOR by Owen King Kirkus Star


by Owen King

Pub Date: March 7th, 2023
ISBN: 9781982196806
Publisher: Scribner

Sprawling, densely populated, intricately plotted, King's new novel is the kind of book that practically begs to be called Dickensian—and the rare one that mostly earns the moniker.

Dora, who came of age at an orphanage amid squalor and cruelty after her beloved brother and then her less-beloved parents succumbed to cholera, has until recently been a domestic servant at the National University. The violent unrest that's convulsed the unnamed city has made her a refugee again, but this time she has a patron, an idealistic blueblood named Robert Barnes who's now a rebel officer. In a quest to find and reconnect with her dead brother, Dora gets Robert, her beau, to finagle a place for her—via a wartime field promotion to Curator—at the Society for Psykical Research, the occult institute where her brother worked before he died. Alas, it has burned to rubble, and so (a neat scratch-out on her appointment document does the trick) she settles for curating the bizarre, decrepit, automaton-filled National Museum of the Worker next door. As the city's beloved/despised cats and its factions of revolutionaries wrangle over the city, ordinary citizens suffer. Before long, a mystical Morgue Ship filled with souls mistreated during their lives is seen plying the city's waterways, even its paintings of waterways, and Dora begins to uncover ever deeper and more sinister conspiracies. The book can seem overstuffed at times—the wheels within wheels have wheels that occasionally get tangled in their wheels—but for the most part King carries it off successfully, with vivid prose, excellent minor characters, and a scrappy, every-which-way inventiveness. Best of all is the resistance he musters to sentimentality—this is a Dickensian (im)moral universe, yes, but if the arc of history bends toward justice, it's going to have to be because a working person wrenched and hammered it in that direction. Ever so slightly.

Dickens novel meets Hieronymus Bosch painting—dark, chaotic fun.