First of a new fantasy series entitled The Liveship Traders, set on the same world as Hobb's stunning trilogy (concluded with Assassin's Quest, 1997) but otherwise unconnected. The trading ship Vivacia, owned and captained by Ephron Vestrit out of Bingtown, is constructed of wizardwood: Once three generations of Vestrits have died aboard, the wizardwood will ``quicken,'' become sentient and self-aware, embodied in its moving, talking figurehead. Two previous Vestrits have passed on; now Ephron lies dying, having turned over the captaincy to his arrogant and inexperience son-in-law Kyle Haven and not to his natural successor, sea-wise daughter Althea. Kyle in turn sends for his son Wintrow, whom he gave to be a priest of Sa and who wants only to remain at his monastery. Ephron dies, Vivacia quickens, and she befriends Wintrow. Kyle banishes Althea, sets about brutally training the reluctant Wintrow, and arranges to carry slaves. Meanwhile, the pirate captain Kennit nurses ambitions of capturing a liveship; some intelligent sea serpents have their own agenda; Ephron's widow Ronica must repay a crippling debt to the Rain Wild magicians, endangering her other daughter, the headstrong Malta; and Althea schemes to recover her ship. Plenty of promising ideas and material, but heavily padded and with utterly inconclusive plotlines: Hobb has succumbed to Doorstopper Syndrome, an apparently incurable malady characterized by bloat, irresolution, logorrhea, and brake failure.