The Octagonal Raven is, at heart, a conspiracy thriller. Centuries after the world rebuilds itself after a catastrophic ecological collapse, nanotechnology and genetic engineering have created a high standard of living, and minimal ecological impact. But all is not well in heaven. Someone has been trying to kill Daryn Alwyn, and he needs to find out just who and why. He's not a powerful man, having rejected his inheritance for a life as a starship pilot, and now works as a consultant to media companies. But his family is powerful, controlling the world's largest communications network. As attempts on his life mount up, Alwyn finds himself on the trail of a subtle coup, one that looks set to ultimately destabilise his society, turning it into a world rulled by a self-selected genetic elite. How can one man discover just what is going on, and how can he stop the conspiracy from succeeding and destroying the future? And how can he make a difference if he knows that his chosen path will result in the deaths of thousands?
Modesitt's futures are intriguing places: obviously descended from our Western secular worldview, but sufficiently different to give us a sense of culture shock as we read his books. This approach does make them difficult to enter, it'll take a 100 pages to get into a Modesitt novel, but then once you've grasped his detailed society, you can navigate your way around the story with ease. The Octagonal Raven uses a mix of flashback and current events to set the scene in the first half of the novel, dropping into a linear timeline in the second half. This technique helps grasp the mix of alien mystery and human darkness that drives the plot engine on and on to a complex ending. Modesitt is a master of the moral dilemma, of the shadings between light and dark that cloud our lives and drive us away from the hard choices that may have to made in order to preserve justice and peace.
This is an intriguing and (dare I say it) clever novel. Not as instantly gripping as it might be, the story builds to a satisfactory climax, while completing an ambitious world building exercise. If you've thought that Modesitt only wrote blockbuster fantasies, then this is a book that may well add his SF to your bookshelves.