Always Gray in Winter, by Mark J. Engels – Book Review by Fred Patten
by Pup Matthias
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
Always Gray in Winter, by Mark J. Engels
Knoxville, TN, Thurston Howl Publications, August 2017, trade paperback, $12.99 (178 pages).
Always Gray in Winter is one of those novels that is deliberately mysterious at first, and only gradually reveals what is going on. To avoid my own spoiler, here is the blurb on the author’s website:
“The modern day remnant of an ancient clan of werecats is torn apart by militaries on three continents vying to exploit their deadly talents. Born in an ethnic Chicago neighborhood following her family’s escape from Cold War-era Poland, were-lynx Pawly flees underground to protect her loved ones after genetically-enhanced soldiers led by rogue scientist and rival werecat Mawro overrun her Navy unit in the Gulf of Oman. Pawly’s family seeks her out in a desperate gambit to return [to] their ancestral homeland and reconcile with their estranged kinsmen. But when her human lover arrives to thwart Mawro’s plan to weaponize their feral bloodlust, Pawly must face a daunting choice: preserve her family secrets and risk her lover’s life or chance her true nature driving him away forever.”
Pawly is Pawlina J. Katczynski, a mid-twenties Polish-American in love with Lennart “Lenny” Reintz, a mid-twenties German-American U.S. Coast Guard Maritime Security specialist. However, Pawly has become a were-lynx vigilante superhero in combat against Mawro, another werecat who uses his shapeshifting powers for sinister and unethical purposes: he is the leader and head scientist of the North Korean “ailuranthropic” R&D program. Here is Pawly, in text and also an illustration by Amy Sun Hee “inspired by the novel”, on the author’s website:
“Her fangs bit into the fur below her lower lip. Pawly fell forward and thrust out her legs against the railing. Claws sprouted forth from the tips of her fingers with a flick of each wrist. She dove toward the car and yowled to goad the driver into turning her way. Her claws sank into the skin above the bridge of his nose as she slid across the car’s hood on her butt. With a grunt she yanked her hand free, tearing both of the man’s eyes free from their sockets. He screamed and crumpled to the pavement, cradling his ruined face, weapon all but forgotten. His partner whirled around with his shotgun in one hand, leaving his chest wide open. Before reaching the wall, Pawly raked the toe claws on both feet across the man’s abdomen. She pushed off with her legs and landed past the front bumper. When she spun around, the wide-eyed man stood before her, trembling as he stuffed his entrails back inside him with both hands. Pawly responded to his horrified whimper with but a shrug before he collapsed.” (p. 7)
In fact, Always Gray in Winter remains deliberately confusing through its first half. The first chapter introduces Mawro and his were-tigress assistant Hana, and establishes that they work for North Korea. The next chapter focuses upon Pawly, the were-lynx (that’s her on the cover), shows her fighting a lone war against white slaver thugs, hints at her having an uncontrollable bloodlust, and ends with her capture by a mysterious organization. The third and fourth chapters reveal that Pawly’s captors are her own extended family, who are affiliated with the U.S. Navy but are acting on their own in drugging Pawly in San Francisco and spiriting her away to Chicago. Barry, Dory, Alex, Tommy, Sheila, Top (also called Topper or Big Top), and Ritzi are introduced, calling each other Mom, Dad, and similar names showing a close relationship. Flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks both clarify and further confuse matters. The family members are gradually more clearly identified – Top is Christopher; Dory is Teodor; Tommy is Pawly’s crippled twin brother Tomasz. Lenny, Pawly’s fiancée, is not a werecat, and has been unwillingly assigned as an assistant to arrogant DHS agent Manuel Latharo. The evil Russian Blaznikov is dead, but has he left death traps behind him?
“‘Everyone around you will die, Pawlina,’ boomed Blaznikov’s mocking voice in her mind.” (p. 10)
The ominous MSG (not monosodium glutamate) has been stolen and could be anywhere in the world. Some disaster has recently befallen them:
“Top himself appointed her squad leader upon their arrival in Chah Behar. Within days his reputation would be ruined. Lenny would be wounded. Tommy would be paralyzed. And the woman she loved like a sister would be dead.” (p. 52)
Could things get any worse? Well, yeah. Engels has a fondness for acronyms, from the obvious (NROTC) to the obscure (BUD/S) to the imaginary for this novel (the aforementioned MSG); and a weakness for dangling participles. “Only the soft sobbing of the terrified girls, still seated on the car’s bumper, remained once their death throes subsided.” (p. 7) The girls’ death throes? No, their captors’ in the preceding paragraph. “Lenny squinted at the man’s eyes while he showed them inside.” (p. 37) While who showed them inside; Lenny or the man with the eyes?
Always Gray in Winter (cover artist named Bone in the book; named Boneitis in the author’s webpage) is not always convincing:
“Hana spied the thick limb of a poplar tree nearby. She sank the claws on her feet into the branch beneath her and pushed off. Little bits of bark fluttered earthward behind her. High above the Forest’s floor, she leapt from treetop to treetop toward the clearing along its southern border. The moonlight shimmering off the virgin snow glowed brighter as she neared her goal. She gritted her teeth and drove herself forward through the pain. There would be ample opportunity to rest once she reached the van.” (p. 135)
Hana is a were-tiger (“our Bengal bimbo”). Tigers don’t climb trees. Also, poplar forests are popular – Thomas Jefferson planted one that is a National Historic Landmark today – but is the poplar a good tree to go leaping “from treetop to treetop” among?
But quibbles aside, Always Gray in Winter is a fast-moving thriller. You will become wrapped up in the problems of the Katczynski werecat clan, and its struggles to escape both its physical enemies and the killing madness of Werecat’s Rage. Recommended.
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The author writes that he has added the missing word in his blurb (one of the benefits of print-on-demand publishing), and that Always Gray in Winter has a Kindle edition now for $2.99.