Wednesday, October 20, 2021

TBR Challenge: Mary Stewart - Airs Above the Ground

Lovely Vanessa March, two years married and very much in love, did not think it was a strange for her husband to take a business trip to Stockholm. What was strange was the silence that followed. She never thought to look for her missing husband in Vienna -- until she saw him in a newsreel shot there at the scene of a deadly fire. Then she caught a glimpse of him in a newsreel shot of a crowd near a mysterious circus fire and knew it was more than strange. It was downright sinister.
Vanessa is propelled to Vienna by the shocking discovery. In her charge is young Timothy Lacy, who also has urgent problems to solve. But her hunt for answers only leads to more sinister questions in a mysterious world of white stallions of Vienna. But what promises to be no more than a delicate personal mission turns out to involve the security forces of three countries, two dead men, a circus and its colourful personnel. And what waits for Vanessa in the shadows is more terrifying than anything she has ever encountered.

Comment: October is here and with it, another TBR Challenge post. The theme for this month is Gothic which, to be honest, isn't one I would pick on my own. Nothing against it, but it's not a type of story I tend to find suits me completely. So, I browsed my bookshelves, trying to see if I could fit anything and this book caught my attention - I had read something already by the author - and after checking GR, I saw many readers labeled it Gothic, along with romantic suspense and mystery. Voilá, I thought.

In this book we meet young Vanessa Marsh, while she sits with a family friend at Harrods and said friend, after a long conversation, finally ends up asking her to travel with her son Timothy to Vienna. Vanessa is surprised by this request but the friend explains she saw Vanessa's husband on the newsreel and would she not travel there to meet him and, as a favor, Timothy could go too, to join his father? This was delivered with a little malice but Vanessa is intrigued and after finding the newsreel, she does confirm to herself it is her husband...the problem is that he sent her a telegram from Sweden, therefore how could he be in Vienna? Vanessa decides to use the presence of Timothy as an excuse in case she discovers nothing, but she does plan her travel to Vienna....

I'll start right away by confessing this book has been for years in the pile because it's set in Vienna. This is my dream destination to travel before I die and had I got the company (I'm too shy to go alone) I would have gone there already. I'm not obsessed with all things Vienna, but I always have my antennae up, lol, when the city is mentioned and thus, this book's presence in the shelf.

I had read the author's work before, two short stories actually and I found that shorter size perfect for the type of story the author had created. Since the books date to the 1960s, some certain prose style is to be expected but I was still a little surprised by how... slow paced several parts of this book seemed to be. The writing style is very specific, as I've experienced with the other book I read, this one also took me some time to get used to - mostly because the wording/language are a little dated and English isn't my mother tongue, but the key moments took quite a while to be reached...

The plot is both clever and easy to follow, as the protagonists go from one situation to another. I'd say the big flaw for me here is the pace. What worked so well in the short stories seemed to fail for me in this full length story. It took time to set up things, to present them in a way that would mean it was believable for the characters to act a certain way, but I found that between key situations, time was passing by, there were many descriptions of actions and steps taken and I must bow my head and confess I was bored during some of these moments.

I know this is a talented author but there were times I just wish things would happen. When they did, they followed the pattern I came to expect from this author's work (a lot settling on convenience and people's social behavior in the 60s) and not much on believability of motive. With this I mean that the reason why the villain was doing his, well, evil deeds, was to expect but the way he went about it... obviously only in a time without easy communication mechanisms, such as a cell phone or a computer. Still, things were found somehow, even for the "good guys".

Vanessa is the main character. I liked several of her attitudes and I think she was quite brave to want to find out exactly what her husband was hiding from her. If there is one thing the author clearly does well is to allow the reader to guess things, to read between the lines...although I must say there is one scene here that in a movie would be perfect but reading through it was impossible for the result to be as amazing as I think the author wanted it to be. Nevertheless, for an attentive reader, the big mystery isn't such a surprise.

I did like all the Vienna references, the inclusion of the Spanish Riding School horses and how they are trained and special and even scenes with veterinary work and other animal related content was interesting to read about. I think the construction of the story and the eye for so much detail did help making this a special story.

The Gothic element isn't as strong as I would imagine, thinking this can be a label given to the book. There's suspense and some scarier moments, especially experienced by the heroine, but when I think of gothic I think more of darker and moody scenes than what we have here but I suppose this can be subjective.

The book ends positively, as one can imagine from this author but I still think some things were left too much into the whole "read between the lines". Fine, this is how things are and perhaps there's a bit of social context here playing a part too, not that I mind it in general, but I do think there was a lot of paragraphs dedicated to describing things which could have been dealt with more quickly and then when some important things - in my POV - should have been more detailed, they weren't.

This aside, I still enjoyed a big part of this book. I'll certainly try another one one day, to keep comparing, and I won't forget the Vienna descriptions but as for the fictional aspects, perhaps this wasn't a full win for me.
Grade: 6/10


  1. I love Gothics, especially this time of year, I'm so happy to see you join in and give them a try in for this month's theme! I think Stewart is so associated with Gothics that any book she puts out has people automatically thinking Gothic, even if the theme isn't completely there.

    I hope you get to Vienna someday!

    1. Hi!
      Yes, to me this wasn't a classic gothic...unless one thinks about when the book was written and the atmosphere in one specific moment of the story.

      I hope I manage to go one day!