Veronica Roth’s novella, Arch-Conspirator, reimagines the Athenian tragedy, “Antigone,” by Sophocles. Combining a distant future with current themes, Roth increases the pressure and keeps the fuse burning right up until the very end. Each page is riddled with anxiety-inducing stakes, complex family dynamics, and difficult choices that force our characters down dark and bleak paths.
To preserve humanity, genes are taken from the dead and stored in a sacred place called the Archive. No one is excluded from this death ritual regardless of life choices to include Antigone’s parents, Oedipus and Jocasta. Oedipus once steered the helm of the last city on Earth, guiding its people. After his and Jocasta’s brutal murders, the mantle falls to Antigone’s militant uncle, Kreon, who graciously spares the lives of Antigone and her three siblings. What kind of life can a person have while dwelling within a gilded cage? As decrees are made and broken, both Antigone and Kreon learn there are some things greater than love and strategy, things that only know how to destroy.
Roth’s challenge with Arch-Conspirator comes with the reimagining aspect: how to make a classic tale feel new and relevant. One of the high points of the novella is Roth’s approach. The significant events from the original remain, but Roth twists them to the benefit of a modern audience. She then layers them with impactful themes like the consequences of choice, familial love, female autonomy, and power. The story is told through multiple perspectives in first-person, allowing not only a greater attachment to what’s happening, but a fuller understanding of the differing opinions and motives of each character. The ability to bond to the characters is essential for reader investment as the story darkens and tensions heighten, especially as you near the end. I was hopeful and nervous up until the last page, even with a familiarity of the source material.
Arch-Conspirator might cause some readers difficulty with regard to length and world-building. As with so many novellas, I found myself wishing this had been a full-fledged novel. Some readers might feel the short length is a hindrance to the development of certain story elements, most pointedly, the world-building. Roth doesn’t provide explanations for why and how the Earth has become what it is, instead she focuses on the smaller and intricate aspects of society and family. Readers who prefer more deep-dives into the world-building and explanations for why things are the way they are might take issue with the lack of elaboration.
Fans of grimdark will appreciate Arch-Conspirator for its complicated narrative, the fatal consequences, and the familiar themes. Roth’s use of multiple points of view gives the reader a well-rounded insight into the reasoning behind each choice made as well as to the motive:
“And what better way to take the power from a symbol than to claim it as your own?”
The most tragic of stories are the ones that could have been prevented with a different choice or action. Roth’s gentle reminder is both brutal and all encompassing.
Thank you to Tor for sending me an ARC of Arch-Conspirator to review.