Arch-Conspirator by Veronica Roth
Arch-Conspirator (2023), by Veronica Roth, is a tautly written reimagining of Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone. While some will probably wish for a bit more world-building detail and deeper development of some themes, fans of the novella form will find a lot to like here.
Set in a post-apocalyptic, far-future refuge where the land outside the story’s locale is uninhabitable, it’s a world whose population rests on a knife’s edge of survival and so has chosen to lessen the chance of extinction by mandating births (“It didn’t matter if a person wanted a child or not … If they were viable … they were required to carry a child, even though only half of them would survive it”) via a strictly controlled method that is a mix of surrogacy, genetics — they use the DNA of the dead —, and religion. Antigone, her sister Ismene, and brothers Eteocles and Polyneikes are considered soulless and blasphemous as their parents Oedipus and Jocasta had chosen a natural conception. When Oedipus, the former leader of the enclave, was overthrown and both their parents killed, the children were taken in by the authoritarian Kreon, the current leader. Soon into the story, Polyneikes and Eteocles are killed, the former attempting to overthrow Kreon, the latter defending him. As in the original Greek tragedy, Kreon forbids the proper treatment of Polyneikes’ body, which in the religious views of the city means Polyneikes’ will never be reborn, and his edict is defied by Antigone, her rebellion entangling both her sister and Kreon’s own son Haemon.
The plot is tightly constructed, tense, and propulsive, making Arch-Conspirator a compellingly fast read for reasons well beyond its brevity, with the plot elements that mirror the Greek play updated in smart, original fashion, feeling wholly natural to the science fiction setting.
The thematic underpinning, meanwhile, is densely layered, raising issues of personal agency (particular with women), bodily autonomy, family obligation, use (and abuse) of power, religion, the balance between the rights of the individual and the needs of the state, and more. Here, more than with regard to plot, is where I personally would have liked to see more development, where the form’s length works somewhat at odds with the narrative. One feels at times some subjects are merely glanced over or tossed into the mix but not fully fleshed out. To a lesser extent I could have done with a bit more depth regarding a few of the characters. But honestly that’s almost certainly more an issue of personal preference than any writerly misstep. I often find myself wishing for more when reading a novella as I lean toward wanting a deep immersion in character and theme (often more than plot). So asking for more of that here is sort of like complaining that a sonnet didn’t go 20 or 30 lines.
As a novella, therefore, Roth pretty much nails it, grabbing the reader and pulling them forcefully through a tensely fraught plot involving characters one cares about and posing serious questions about how we should live. A good read on its own, and if I were still teaching high school, I’d almost certainly use it in the classroom alongside the original story.