Tuesday, November 15, 2011

56. Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart

I first discovered Mary Stewart thanks to my friend (sadly not blogging about his books and probably not reading much anymore due to a good case of the triplets) who is a huge fan of her Arthurian trilogy.  I read the first one and really enjoyed it (and have the second one from the same publisher on deck).  I did not realize, though, that Stewart was a succesful and well-established author of the genre people credit her with creating and mastering, the thriller-romance, long before she did the Arthurian trilogy.  I learned this by discovering Airs Above the Ground in a very full used bookstore in Moncton and then doing a bit of follow-up research on the web.

The book started off in a very promising way.  A young woman is bummed out because she and her husband had a big fight just before he left on a business trip.  They were supposed to meet up for a holiday after, but now it is all up in the air.  During a lunch with an older family aquaintance, she gets roped into chaperoning the older woman's son to Vienna where he is hoping to stay with his father.  At first, the heroine is really not interested, but what clinches the deal is when she sees a newsreel talking about a deadly fire that took place in a circus travelling through Austria.  She glimpses a man who looks just like her husband standing next to an attractive woman in the crowd outside the ruins of the fire.  It's an intriguing premise and definitely makes you turn the pages.

Even more fun, the boy, who is 17 and at first full of resentment at being chaperoned, turns out to be up to his own little game (he hasn't actually told his father he is coming) and quite capable (he speaks german, knows all about horses).  So both characters have their own little secrets (she doesn't tell him her suspicions about her husband) and as they travel, they start to reveal them and team up.  Of course, they do end up chasing after the circus and that's when the intrigue starts.

Unfortunately, the premise was much better than the payoff.  I found the first half to be really enjoyable and gripping, but when the reveals start happening, they are all pretty banal.  Her husband turns out to be a super spy and the boy just tags along for the ride.  All the potential tension is taken out of the relations between the characters and instead we get a super-safe, British old boys (but with a keen girl) crime-stopping caper.  There is some interesting sub-text about men and women and the role of the male protagonist in the genre, but Stewart plays it very safe.  It's not bad, but once I knew there were going to be no twists and that the good guys were truly good and decent, I wasn't so motivated to keep reading and it took me a while to finish it.  I had been hoping for something a bit more acerbic along the lines of Highsmith or Millar.  Maybe in her later books, she pushes things a bit, because she was certainly talented and intelligent.  And the Crystal Cave definitely had a darker side.

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