I use XMLDB quite a bit as an abstraction. I don't know that I'd consider it dead, but I may well be wrong. Either way, it has it's problems, and like you, I'd like to see a better interface.
i have done a little testing with it (build a db driver, ran some queries). i also joined the XQJ mailing list and the XQJ bug tracker. i see that there are definitely bugs open, and seems like the code-owner is working on them.
i have not checked back in a while on the project (2 weeks now) but i should.
i really like the idea of XQJ as the next replacement for XMLDB. from reading the eXist mailing lists logs, everything is based on XMLDB which looks to be a dead standard.
i would be really interested to know how other users are thinking of XQJ and what they are doing with it (if anything). I wanted to start writing production modules on the driver, but then decided to wait a bit and watch the project and see if the bugs were getting fixed in a timely fashion.