Wellspring of Chaos is probably the best Recluce novel Modesitt has penned since the Chaos Balance, a solid if not spectacular addition to a series that had badly run out of gas the last few books. What makes it better? The good books in the series share the common thread of exploring the intriguing cultures and magic of Recluce; the bad ones use it as a backdrop for what has become a bit of a repeating boy-overcomes-obstacles-to-be-world-changing-mage/Emperor/etc. The good news is this has a lot more in common with the former.
The story is one we've heard before and unfortunately elements remain formulaic enough to knock it down a star. Without ruining plot, Kharl the Cooper is a good-deeds type who does a good deed for the wrong person, gets forced from his home, sails around the globe (literally), finds himself in exile, and helps out the land and people of his exile. Substitute sail for wander and Recluce has seen this tale told before - Magic of Recluce, Towers of the Sunset, Magic Engineer, Order War, Fall of Angels, among others. It's familiar territory, for better or for worse.
Now the good news. First, Kharl is Modesitt's first middle-aged Recluce protagonist since Nylan in the Chaos Balance, meaning Modesitt ratchets Kharl's observation level of life's travails up a few notches from his typical kid. This doesn't mean Kharl is any quicker off the bat than some others - his awakening as an Order Mage resembles that of Lerris - but we don't have to watch him do truly dumb things. Second, the wanderjahr is better done than any book since Chaos Balance. Kharl visits almost every major city on the planet in his sailing, and its the exploration of the different cultures in this well articulated world that make this worth reading. Nordla and Austra finally get explored, as well as side trips into Hamor, Recluce and Candar, the last of which features some neat cameos by previous series characters. As it turns out, Austra and Nordla don't feel much different from various Candar provinces, but its still interesting reading. Finally, Kharl does interesting things with Order magic - there's new tricks in that old dog.
The formulaic aspect to the plot clearly subtracts a bit, meaning this is good but doesn't rank with the very best of the series (such as Towers or Death of Chaos). Still, its the best of Recluce in several years, and the various plot threads Modesitt leaves undone means we'll get a sequel of hopefully similar quality.
It's also not a bad entry point for the series given that Kharl has to have the history of Candar explained to him by his shipmates, meaning you get a pretty solid background even if you don't know the series. Those of us who have a bookshelf full of Modesitt first editions and would buy the next just to keep the series complete have a worthwhile read ahead.