Always Gray in Winter: Mark J. Engels

Adult Anthromorphic Military/Science Fiction

Rating: 3 Stars

Always Gray in Winter Cover.jpeg

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary review copy of this book and am leaving a voluntary review. This opinion is entirely my own and is in no way influenced by outside parties.

Always Gray in Winter is my first anthromorph read, and I wasn’t sure how I would feel about the whole “humans turning into cats” deal. Still, I wanted to broaden my horizons, so I took the leap and gave it a chance. I’ll tackle style & prose, pacing, plot, consistency, and character development like I usually do.

I’m happy to say Mark Engels’s narrative voice is sure-footed and engaging, which can be uncommon among debut authors. His style is both witty and deft, yanking the reader along at a frenetic pace (more on that later) and providing plenty of moments where I chuckled aloud at one remark or another. This ability to blend militaristic sparsity with genuine humor is his biggest asset, and I can only assume it’ll improve further as he releases more work.

As far a pace, Always Gray in Winter is a lightning bolt of a novel. Fans of nonstop action with no room to breathe will surely enjoy. Personally, I wish there had been a few breaks between the major developments. The plot moves so swiftly that I was on page 95 (about halfway through the book) before I realized two things:

1) I had no idea what was going on

2) I had no idea which characters were which

These two things were what stopped this novel from being a 4 or 5-star for me. There are five pairs of same-sex characters who have names that start with the same letter, and most of them are related by blood or marriage. There’s a Sunny and a Stui, an Annie and Alex, Top and Tommy, Niko and Nat, and Lenny and Latharo. All but the last pair are in the same family. Even writing this, I couldn’t tell you the exact relationship between each character I’ve named without consulting the chart I wrote inside the book’s back cover (and I can rattle off Game of Thrones characters without hesitation. Big casts don’t bother me). And there are several more characters in that family who thankfully have names unique enough to actually remember, like Pawlie or Dory.

Relationships, like plot elements, are rarely stated more than once, so if you miss a single piece of information (and there’s critical information on almost every page, which is why I think the story would benefit from slowing down the pace occasionally), you’re screwed. I’m no stranger to military fiction, and in addition to the names spinning my head around, there are a plethora of abbreviations and phrases in foreign languages (mainly Polish and Korean, with some Spanish, which I understood) that are sometimes defined, sometimes not. The book would have benefited from a glossary at the back so the reader can easily check what all the slang and lingo means.

All this prevented me from understanding or enjoying the plot for the entire first half of the novel. Towards the back end, I was able to grasp what was happening, and it became a much smoother read just in time to appreciate the climax of the story. Still, although there are twists and turns throughout, it feels like by the end of the book, nothing really happens. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but in the grand scheme of things, the status quo remains largely unchanged. The biggest development is between a pair of characters, and that’s the saving grace for the plot. Although the story oozes militaristic authenticity, it’s more of a tale of family bonds than tactical operations.

Most of the characters are likable, but many of them blend together because they’re all part of the same family and the plot moves so quickly that you don’t have time to get to know more than a few beyond a superficial level. Those few that you spend more time with are well-rendered and interesting, and the intra-clan banter always had me smiling. Engels really conveys a sense of closeness and companionship with his dialogue, which is impressive considering how minimalist it is. I just wish we had more time to flesh out the various characters, which would have helped immensely with both of the problems I discussed.

Like I mentioned earlier, I was hesitant about the anthromorphic nature of the book, but it ended up being one of the best parts. The names are clever, it gives the action scenes a brutal edge, and the details of their condition are presented clearly and consistently. Overall, I still enjoyed the book, but the problems I discussed prevented me from loving it. Always Gray in Winter is a great find for hardcore fans of military or anthromorph fiction, but people new to the genre may find it a difficult first read. If Engels can even out his pacing and illustrate his vast array of characters more clearly, he will have a must-read series under his belt.