Wizardwood. A sentient wood.
The most precious commodity in the world.
Like many other legendary wares, in comes only from the Rain River Wilds.
But how can one trade with the Rain River Traders, when only a liveship, fashioned from wizardwood, can negotiate the perilous waters of the Rain Wild River? Rare and valuable, a liveship will quicken only when three family members, from successive generations, have died on board. The liveship Vivacia is about to undergo her quickening, as Althea Vestrit's father is carried to her deck on his death-throes. Althea waits for the ship that she loves more than anything to awaken. Only to discover that the Vivacia has been signed away in her father's will to her brutal brother-in-law, Kyle Haven...
Others plot to win or steal a liveship. The Paragon, known by many as the Pariah, went mad, turned turtle, and drowned his crews. Now he lies, blind, lonely and broken on a deserted beach. But greedy men have designs to restore him, to sail the waters of the Rain River once more.
Ship of Magic is the first book of the Liveship Traders series and follows the fortunes of the Vestrit family. A liveship is a ship made of Wizardwood, a mystical substance, giving it magical properties. When three generations of a ship's owners die on board, a liveship "quickens", meaning that the ship awakens and becomes a sentient being with all the memories of the ancestors who have contributed to the ship's quickening. Captain Vestrit's grandmother had ordered the liveship Vivacia, and the Vestrit family is still in debt to the Rain Wild Trader family from whom they bought the Wizardwood even before the ship was quickened. Only a liveship is capable of crossing the perilous Rain Wild River to trade with the Rain Wilders, who have valuable goods plundered from an Ancient Elderling ruin.
The Vestrits live in Bingtown, which borders the sea, Jamaillia, Chalced, and the Rain Wilds. Their charter comes from Jamaillia; however, the current leader of Jamaillia has ignored the promises his ancestors made with Bingtown, which causes outrage among Bingtown's citizens. Chalced's influence and customs are spreading throughout the world, because of its profitable slave trade.
The story begins when Ephron Vestrit dies on Vivacia and quickens it. His daughter, Althea, who had assumed that the ship would come to her after her father's death, is shocked to see that her father has given the ship to her sister, Keffria, who in turn had given ownership to Kyle, her Chalcedean husband. Kyle believes that he can restore the family fortune by entering the slave trade. Kyle said that Althea would never sail the Vivacia until she proves her seamanship by showing him a ship's ticket. Althea sets off to prove she is a capable sailor. However, Kyle discovers that he is unable to control the ship without a blood relative of the Vestrits on board. Without Althea, the only alternative is to force his son Wintrow, who wants to be a priest, to serve aboard the ship. Wintrow finds it hard to adjust to life on the ship. Despite his bitterness at being torn from the priesthood, he has a growing bond with the ship that he can't ignore.
At the same time as all of these events, the ambitious pirate Kennit desires to become more than a pirate: he wishes to unite all pirate townships under him as king. Kennit pursues slaver ships to free the slaves while throwing the slavers overboard. A crafty man with a gift for foresight, Kennit realizes that if he frees the slaves, he'll gain the allegiance of their family and friends. The freed slaves then crew the captured vessels as a pirate fleet under Kennit's command. However, Kennit desires to have a liveship of his own for his flagship. He targets the Vivacia, who has become a slaver ship under Kyle's persuasion. Kennit manages to capture the Vivacia and becomes her captain.
To get the proof of her seaworthiness that Kyle requires, Althea works on board a slaughtership, disguised as a man. She discovers that Brashen Trell, a former mate on the Vivacia, and a disgraced younger son of another prominent Bingtown family, is also serving on the ship. Unfortunately, Althea is denied a ship's ticket when the captain of the slaughteship discovers her true name. Althea and Brashen separate after a romantic dispute. Brashen takes a position on a pirate's trader ship. Althea joins the crew of the liveship Ophelia, owned by the Tenira family, headed back to Bingtown.