Monday, June 12, 2017

Appendix N Review: The Ship of Ishtar

I'm beginning to come around to the idea that A. Merritt deserves to be considered one of the Grandmasters of fantasy.

The Moon Pool was an imaginative, brilliant, wild adventure of a first novel that lingered a little too long in places before finding its footing for a rip-roaring conclusion.

The Ship of Ishtar is his third book, originally serialized in Argosy All-Story Weekly in 1924, begins simply enough: New York historian John Kenton receives a mysterious block of stone dating back to the reign of Sargon of Akkad and within it finds a beautiful miniature ship made of precious metals and ornaments.

Touching it transports him to a strange world outside of time where the ship is real, endlessly sailing on a sea, where divine mandate demands the two factions of the ship endlessly vie for control of it. Klaneth, the evil priest of Nergal and Sharane, priestess of Ishtar.

The two sides are divinely prohibited from crossing over to the other side, except Kenton, which makes him a desirable ally. Only, its not much of a choice, since Klaneth is so cruel and evil that Kenton immediately rejects his offer of alliance and he then falls in love with Sharane.

Periodically Kenton is flung back to New York, where the events of the book take place over one night. Only in the world of the Ship, months can pass between returns to NYC. At one point he is chained to an oar as a galley slave for a long time, honing his body to a physical peak. Those physical changes come back to the modern world with him. Injuries too.

Despite this, Kenton continuously charges back into the world of the ship, either to explore the mystery of its existence, seeking vengeance against Klaneth, repaying the loyalty of the friends he's made there, or (increasingly) out of his love for Sharane.

I'm not doing the book enough justice. There's so much going on. Action, magic, ancient Babylonian gods, a superhumanly strong drummer named Gigi, a badass redheaded Persian warrior named Zubran, and a Viking named Sigurd who swears blood brotherhood to Kenton and Zubran.

In true adventure fashion, the stakes keep raising and the action keeps ramping up. Kenton is a two-fisted kind of hero, quick to action when he makes his decisions. The romance between him and Sharane starts off rocky. She thinks he's an agent of Nergal when he explains that centuries have passed in the outside world, so her handmaidens chase him out with spears. He then swears to avenge his pride by conquering the ship and then her.

Like I said, a rocky start, but it evolves into a beautiful love story where the two complement each other extremely well.

The situations are deeply imaginative, the prose is often lovely, the action is visceral, and Merritt displays a well-rounded understanding of ancient civilizations as they would have been understood in the early 20th century (Cuneiform had only been reliably translated in the mid-Nineteenth Century, some seventy years before Ship of Ishtar's publication). The culture clash is not as much as one might expect, as Kenton more or less accepts the simpler (but often more brutal) norms of the ancient people he finds himself among.

For instance, the Ship is rowed by galley slaves. Kenton himself is made a slave before freeing himself. After he takes over the ship there is no emancipation. Its a bit odd, considering how the heroes in The Moon Pool are more keen to bring modern values to the underground world, but you have to consider this: The person from a time period closest to Kenton is a Viking from the 9th Century. Everyone Kenton meets comes from a civilization that, yes indeed, took and used slaves. The modern man is outnumbered, and good luck trying to convince a bunch of non-modern people that slavery is bad.

Ultimately its a minor quibble that is handwaved away. Its not important to the story at hand because in ancient stories like the Epic of Gilgamesh its also not important, and that is the kind of thing Merritt is tapping into.

Where was I?

The Ship of Ishtar is good. Damn good. Read it. And when you do read it, keep an eye on Zubran, because the arc he undergoes is subtle but amazing. 

1 comment:

John Boyle said...

Thanks for posting this review. The Ship of Ishtar is my favorite of A. Merritt's books, but don't stop here.

When you get the chance, read Dwellers in the Mirage, The Face in the Abyss or one of the others. You won't regret it.

They called Merritt The Lord of Fantasy. You'll see why.