Sometimes I worry I've become too cynical in my old age (says the nineteen-year-old). When I read The Magic of Recluce for the first time, I thought it was the best thing since sliced bread, and I went on to devour the next several books of the Recluce saga before promptly breaking for lunch.... (Well, OK, the span of several months may have elapsed sometime among all that, but you get the idea.) Now I feel less charitable toward this book. The Magic of Recluce has a couple of problems, none of them insurmountable and none of them alone detract too much from the story.
Firstly, the story is slow. This isn't the same as pacing, mind you—the pacing of The Magic of Recluce is a near-perfect balance of dialogue and action sequences. The story is slow because it takes a long time for the main character, Lerris, to develop to a point where we feel invested in him as a person; by the time that happens, the story is nearly over, and suddenly he's fighting the evil wizard.
Secondly, Lerris seems to suddenly acquire a long-term planning ability that he lacks upon leaving Recluce. He goes from bored youth to concerned woodcrafter, arranging a marriage for his master's daughter and instilling order everywhere. While much of Lerris' maturity can be attributed to character development, I just never got a sense of how Lerris matured, since everyone he meets seems to deplore his idle search for answers.
Lastly, a good deal of the philosophical discussion in the book is too vague for my liking. I really really love the order/chaos magic system that Modesitt has set up here. However, Justen's (and even Lerris') explanations are too esoteric; I feel like I've landed in an alien university lecture. I get the general gist of the theme that Modesitt wanted to communicate—mainly, that there needs to be balance between order and chaos. However, any serious arguments are stultified by the refusal of those who know better to actually discuss these matters with Lerris. There is a difference between giving someone the answers and debating a point, and the knowledgeable characters of this book seem to confuse the two concepts.
The Magic of Recluce is a highly logistical fantasy novel. By that I mean Modesitt pays close attention to numbers and organization; we get frequent asides that comment on finances, the weather, the political state of the country in which Lerris currently resides, etc. I wouldn't call this a bad thing, but some people might find it boring. Although it would have been nice for Modesitt to develop a slightly more interesting coinage system, and maybe spent less time worrying about coin and more about work in general (Lerris never could seem to dabble in anything; once he tried to do something, he went at it full bore), I didn't mind the logistical elements. It gave me some time to mull over the vagueness surrounding order/chaos theory.
As far as characterization goes, I honestly didn't pay attention to any of the characters except for the few main ones. It seems that Lerris met the same hostile innkeeper at every village (and subsequently had to make a hasty escape from said inn). Even the arguably main characters, however, don't feel very real. Modesitt fails to provide us with any explanation for their inner conflicts. Krystal clearly has issues, but what are they? What really happened in Justen's past? Even more hints or veiled implications would be better than absolute ignorance, the result of which was my apathy toward Krystal's attraction to Lerris and Justen's attitude at the end of the book.
In the end, The Magic of Recluce adheres too faithfully to the standard fantasy tropes. It is technically sound, much like a David Eddings novel, but lacks the truly intriguing hook to make it amazing. Hopefully my memory will be correct in that the later books in this series are far better, especially when it comes to the quality of the characters. I do recall not feeling as passionate about The Magic of Recluce as I did about its successors, re-reading it only because it's the first book. We'll see how I like the next ones.