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The Ship of Ishtar
By A Merritt

Reviewed by Michael Cornett
Rating: none given

I recently read two books by two fantasy greats, written decades apart but remarkably similar in their plots and themes.
 
The first is A. Merritt's The Ship of Ishtar (1924).  Scholar John Kenton receives a block of stone in the mail from an archaeological dig in Babylon.  Cracking it open, he finds a perfectly carved replica of a ship, complete with tiny figures.  Faster than you can say "fantasy plot #54," Kenton is swept away through time and space and finds himself on the deck of that very ship, plowing through an ancient sea.
 
It's an interesting ship.  It seems that years before a priestess of Ishtar and a priest of Nergal had begun a forbidden love affair.  Cursed by their respective deities, they were placed on a specially-built ship, cursed to roam the seas for all eternity.  Although the original two are now dead, the curse is still in effect.  Dominating the ship now are Klaneth, evil priest of Nergal, and Sharane, haughty priestess of Ishtar.  Kenton is caught in the middle, with both members of the clergy urging him to kill the other.
 
Eventually, Kenton winds up being thrown in the galley with other slaves, and the rowing workout he receives transforms him from a wimpy aesthete to a hunky athlete.  He is also occasionally thrown back into his own time.  At one point, he ogles himself in the mirror, checking out his new body (one can almost hear "Macho Man" playing in the background).  Kenton winds up taking over the ship, aided by an enslaved Norseman, flings Klaneth to the waves, and takes haughty Sharane for his own.  In this scene, he utters one of the most ridiculously sexist, misogynistic lines ouside of a "Gor" novel.  "I - give myself - to you!" she moans; to which he replies, "You give nothing!!! I take!"
 In fact, Kenton's new body gives him a new attitude:  he becomes insufferably arrogant and overbearing.  Upon his takeover of the ship, he rewards the slaves who aided him by enslaving them all over again.  When Sharane is kidnapped by Klaneth (who miraculously lives) and taken to a temple to be sacrificed, Kenton and his compadres set off to rescue her... and it's Kenton's arrogance that gets them captured and ruins the whole plan.  Bu all ends happily, in a sense, although Kenton never does get over himself.  It rankles me to see arrogance rewarded.
 
The Ship of Ishtar is a fairly decent book of its type, well-steeped in Babylonian mythology, but with characters that it's hard to care about sometimes.  The plot twists and turns almost constantly, which does a lot to hold a reader's interest.

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