Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart (1965)

When I saw that the 100th anniversary of Mary Stewart’s birth fell last weekend I knew that it was time for me to read another of her books.

I had always liked the look of  ‘Airs Above the Ground’, and so off the shelf it came.

The story is set up beautifully.

Vanessa March is shocked to see her husband on a newsreel item about a circus fire in Austria, because she had believed him to be in Sweden on business. An old family friend saw the same newsreel and called Vanessa, asking her to escort her young relation – Timothy Lacey – to Vienna to visit his father. Vanessa hadn’t quite decided what to do, she was a little annoyed by the lady’s assumptions, but she seized the opportunity; because she really did want to find her husband and understand what  was going on.


In Austria, seventeen year-old Tim admitted that his father wasn’t expecting him – that was only a story for his grandmother – and that what he really wanted was to see the country and to visit The Spanish Riding School in Vienna. And so he and Vanessa formed a plan to find the circus, to reunite Vanessa and her husband, and then to have a wonderful holiday.

Things don’t go entirely to plan.

They are caught in a web of intrigue that has been spun around the circus. And – in particular – around an old piebald horse.

This is a classic Mary Stewart story of romance and suspense; with all of the elements you might expect and with enough to make it feel a little different to her other books.

Vanessa was bright, capable and resourceful young woman, and I found it very easy to like her and to understand her feelings and her actions. I was sorry though that she had put her career as a vet (which was integral to the story) to one side to be a housewife, and that when her husband appeared she was rather too ready to put all of her trust in him. It was a nice change, having a married leading lady, and I liked her relationship with her husband, but I didn’t see enough of him to understand why she had married him.

Her relationship with Tim was much more interesting; an initial wariness grew into friendship, and they became a wonderful team. I suspected that they were only children who were discovering that it would be rather nice to have a sibling.

The settings were beautifully evoked and described: I loved visiting the countryside, the circus, the mountains, the villages and a wonderful gothic castle.

stewart-mary_airsabovetheground_hcThere were some wonderful moments. My favourites were the time in a meadow when Vanessa made a wonderful discovery about that old piebald house; and a dramatic chase around the battlements of the castle.

But I have to say that I don’t think this is Mary Stewart’s best book, and that this story didn’t hold me as it should have.

Some of that was down to me.

This might not have been the right book at the right time, and I might have enjoyed this book more when I was younger.

But some of it was down to the book.

Having a married heroine was a lovely variation on a theme, but it diminished the romance and the suspense, and there wasn’t enough in the rest of the story to make up for that.

The pacing was uneven, with the story slow to start and over-filled with action in the later stages; there was one sequence in particular where Vanessa and Tim did not belong. I can’t say more than that without revealing too much of the plot.

And, though the story of the old piebald house was very well done, there was much less of horses and of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna that I had expected.

None of these flaws were fatal though. I found much to enjoy, and I was always going to follow the story to the end.

Mary Stewart is still a favourite author; and I’m hoping that this was a wobble rather that a sign that I’ve outgrown her books.

Do you like her writing? Do you have favourites among her books?

26 thoughts on “Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart (1965)

  1. Hello Jane, yes I do like Mary Stewart’s books very much, though haven’t read them all, nor this one, but it sounds intriguing. ‘Thornyhold’ is a favourite, have read that one a few times,it has such a mood and it’s unputdownable!


    1. I loved Thornyhold too, and could happily pick it up to read again. This doesn’t have the same magic, but it has more than enough to make it worth visiting for anyone who has enjoyed Mary Stewart’s other works.


  2. It was you Jane who got me into reading Mary Stewart and I really must get round to reading another one or two of hers. Perhaps not this one to get back into them.


  3. I mentioned i had read 4 of them and liked THORNEYHOLD best.BUT i think i read (GOODREADS)that AIRS ABOVE THE GROUND has a 20 page car chase in it somewhere???Which put me off. Her books are easy,fast reads.


    1. I didn’t count the pages, but I can say that there was a car chase and that I had to keep reading to see how it would finish. I wouldn’t put this book in the same class as Thorneyhold, but if you are ever looking for romantic suspense this could hit the spot.


  4. I read this for the anniversary last week too and while I seem to have liked it more than you did, it hasn’t become a favourite for me either. I agree with what you’ve said about Vanessa’s relationships with Lewis and Tim and I thought the scene with Old Piebald in the meadow was lovely as well. Nine Coaches Waiting is still my favourite Mary Stewart novel, but I have a few more left to read so that could change!


  5. Lovely review Jane. I’ve not read a lot of Stewart but this one does sound appealing, if a little flawed. And it’s a shame that the heroine’s life and work has to be put aside so easily for her husband – presumably the feminist revoltion of the 1960s hadn’t quite kicked in yet…. 🙂


    1. She did a particular thing very well, so when you want a little old fashioned escapism she is well worth reading. Her heroines tend not to be career women and its never jarred before, but I found it strange that someone who would go through the long training to be a vet would give it up so quickly.

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    1. Well, if you’re ever looking for a story with romance, suspense and a wonderful sense of place I would warmly recommend Mary Stewart. And I’d say the Nine Coaches Waiting, Thorneyhold or any of her three novels set in Greece would be an excellent introduction.

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  6. Well, you know I’m a Stewart fan, but I haven’t read any of her books for a couple of years now. It’s probably time to return to her and as I haven’t read Airs Above the Ground yet I might just start with it. They are good autumn/winter reads, I think.


    1. I probably hadn’t read her for as long until I spotted the centenary. Though I don’t think this is her best it has more than enough to make it interesting and distinctive, and would read well at any time of year.


  7. Oh, I have actually read this, years and years ago – I was reminded by the mention of the Piebald and the fact that there wasn’t as much horse stuff in it as I’d expected. How funny! Well done for getting one in for the anniversary – I’m a bit reading-challenged-out at the moment!


  8. I have so far only 3 of Mary Stewart’s novels but have loved them all and this is one of those 3. Helen (She Reads Novels) and me were just talking about how much we loved ‘the time in a meadow when Vanessa made a wonderful discovery about that old piebald house’ 🙂 I would love to read more of Stewart’s books!


    1. I can’t say that this would be among my favourites, but I loved the story that unravelled in that meadow too. I’ll read more, but I think I might take a break from the romantic suspense to read her Merlin books that so many people seem to love.

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  9. This is one of my favorite Mary Stewart books. I know that it’s annoying that Vanessa has given up her career, but many women did, even then. The whole book rings true for me, and I even found the car chase gripping because of the descriptions. (I hate car chases, I stopped watching Avatar after 5 minutes because they had a ‘car chase’ even though they didn’t have cars.) That moment in the meadow always leaves me breathless, and the relationship between Vanessa and Tim is a pleasure to watch. So to speak. I agree that Lewis is a shadowy figure, and Vanessa’s connection with him is less developed, but felt that was deliberate, a reflection of his character as a spy, with part of him being hidden, and that in the future, hidden from us, Vanessa would understand more about him..


    1. I think that often how we feel about books is determined by the time we read them and reading order. I found much to appreciate in this book but it couldn’t live up to the high expectations set by books like Nine Coaches Waiting and Thorneyhold.

      I like your perspective on the relationship between Lewis and Vanessa and how Mary Stewart portrayed it, but even given the times I have to question why Vanessa would have given up a career that had required many years of training, especially when her husband was away so much.


  10. Thanks for a lovely blogpost. I love all of Mary Stewart’s writing, including Airs Above the Ground – and, like you, I liked the rooftops chase, Vanessa and Tim’s friendship and the piebald horse.

    Have you seen the video where Mary Stewart is interviewed by Jenny Brown in 1992 for ‘Off the Page’? It is on Youtube, and in it Mary Stewart talks about how she came to write about a dancing piebald. It is a lovely, charming video. It is also on my blog and I have transcribed it too, if you are interested, you can watch/read at


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