John Kenton, WWI vet and archaeologist, gets a stone block from Babylon from a friend. Unbeknownst to both, the block contains the model of golden ship. Soon, Kenton finds himself transported to the ship the model represents, sailing the seas of an alien world and taking part in the agless battle between two Babylonian gods, Ishtar and Nergal. Can he win over the priestess of Ishtar and free the ship from Nergal's influence?
The Ship of Ishtar is way ahead of its time. The style is more akin to modern fantasy than that of its contemporaries, like Howard and Lovecraft. The easy reading and exciting story makes it a fun read. John Kenton goes from being an academic to being a musclebound warrior after spending time in the slave pits aboard the Ship of Ishtar. While Klaneth is a bit over the top in his villainy, Kenton's allies aboard the ship are well developed, from the Viking Sigurd, to Gigi and Zubran, the crew members who join forces with him to rid the ship of Klaneth.
The story has a little bit of a John Carter of Mars feel but the writing is far superior to Burroughs'. Sharane is a little submissive for my tastes but since Merritt was writing this in the 30's, I'll chalk it up to being a product of the times. I would be negligent if I didn't mention the setting. Most of the book takes place aboard the Ship of Ishtar. Because of a curse, the minions of Nergal have to stay on one half of the ship while Ishtar's priestesses have to stay on the other. Since Kenton is beholden to neither, he can move about freely, if he can escape the slave pits. How many fantasy stories are there where the hero is a slave for half the book?
While The Ship of Ishtar hasn't unseated any of my fantasy favorites, it's still really good. If you're looking for pulp adventure, you could find worse ways to spend a Sunday afternoon.