Welcome, one and all, to another MDM Projects book review. Today, I’m looking at Always Gray In Winter by Mark J Engels. Werecats? Scenes set in Halloween? Yup! This is part of Halloween month!
By way of disclosure, I received a copy of this book from NetGalley in return for an honest review.
Background: Mark was born in Michigan and currently lives in Wisconsin with his wife, son and dog. Growing up, he had an interest in trains and electronics, which led to his career in commissioning, designing and engineering signalling and communication systems for the US rail industry. He is a member of both the Allied Authors of Wisconsin and the Furry Writer’s Guild, and is a fan of anime and manga.
Always Gray In Winter was published by Thurston Howl Publications on August 10th 2017 and is a paranormal/sci-fi thriller that follows Pawlina ‘Pawly’ Katczynski, a werecat and former Naval officer. After a period of radio silence, she has now resurfaced and been thrust into the middle of a longstanding conflict between rival werecat clans. As family, friends and enemies come into contact with each other, will Pawly be able to deal with not only her own unexpected reunions, but the violence to come?
The Good: What we have here is a book that combines elements of various different genres – in this case, paranormal, military sci-fi, and thriller – and does so well. And that’s the key. It’s all too easy to over-reach when combining different genres and end up with something that doesn’t quite flow together the way that it should. Mark doesn’t fall into this trap though, and the different elements knit together seamlessly into a coherent piece of genre fiction.
In particular, I thoroughly enjoyed the character interactions. The antagonists, Mawro and Hana, were a delight to read; their dynamic combined a loyalty to their mission while still maintaining a loving father-daughter relationship, and seeing them play off each other was great. Meanwhile, our heroine Pawly has plenty of opportunity to show different sides of her personality when flitting between work, her familial relationships and her talks with other characters. This all helps give the book a very human feel, even as it pertains to the various werecat species. As a result, the characters end up both likable and relatable.
That’s not to say that conversation and interaction is the only thing going for the book though. The military aspects feel very authentic, and they tie in nicely with some well-executed action scenes. Meanwhile, the overarching story has enough complexities to keep you hooked on wanting to know what happens next. For those that like the small touches too, the speech includes a couple of well-placed phrases in foreign languages; I recognised Spanish and Polish, though I had to check the translations. Rather than take you out of the story, they fit in with what’s happening on the page, and add to the overall feel of the book. Coming in from the anthro standpoint, Mark also does a good job with resolving something that I was glad to see broached: tracks in the snow. By simply having the characters point out that human boots are uncomfortable in werecat form, but that they are temporarily a necessity around areas where people are likely to look at footprint, was a nice touch. These, combined with a suitably descriptive writing style, all make for a nicely balanced piece of fiction.
I really like the cover too. The artist, Bone, has put together a piece that feels like a pencil sketch to me, which really stands out stylistically. The image also captures Pawly well, both in terms of attitude and how I pictured her while reading.
The Bad: In terms of the usual content warning, there is some violence in Always Gray In Winter. Given the military aspect of the story, this should be expected, so there shouldn’t be too many cases of people picking it up without realising, but you never know. I didn’t personally find it to be excessive or overused though, so it doesn’t lose any marks from me in that regard. It’s just worth noting if you’re not a fan of such things.
Always Gray In Winter is a well-written book, that much is clear. However, there was one thing that prevented me from giving it a higher score: overload. In this respect, what I mean is that the book throws a lot at you throughout. While this is in itself fine, it did give me a few issues early on. We are introduced to the large cast of characters, get through a lot of flashbacks, and move back and forth between locations at speed. Once you settle into the story, the book becomes easy enough to follow, but I know that I personally had a little trouble with keeping up, at least initially. That’s as much a fault with me as the reader as anything, of course, but I do think that it risks some early disconnect for readers. Honestly though, I would hope that anyone reading pushes through that, because it’s more than worth sticking with to the end.
Final View: Always Gray In Winter is an easy recommend for fans of sci-fi with a dose of intrigue and a touch of the paranormal. Yes, it has some minor niggles, but they really aren’t surmountable. The book is packed to the brim with a memorable cast and plenty of twists and turns, all of which combine to make it a great debut novel that is thoroughly deserving of your time.
Final Score: 4 / 5