A Marvel outing into Young Adult novels, Black Widow: Forever Red by Margaret Stohl is a brisk exploration of what it is to look up to, or be let down by, a hero. The brightly Disney plot—a young girl rescued from a supervillain becomes Natasha Romanov a.k.a. Black Widow’s sidekick, a partnership about which neither one is enthusiastic—makes Natasha more approachable than ever before. That it does so without feeling incompatible with her portrayal in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is even more remarkable.
The story begins with a look into Black Widow’s past. Ivan Somodorov, the scientist who trained and tortured her in the Red Room, has captured another child. Black Widow helps his victim escape, but Ivan is still at large, and the young Ava Orlova grows up as a ward of S.H.I.E.L.D. before setting out on her own. In her teens, Ava lives in the basement of a YWCA, and she’s having dreams that sound a lot like prophetic visions.
Ava, Natasha, and Alex Manor—literally the boy of Ava’s dreams—end up on a mission to stop Somodorov, and that trio is key to the book’s theme of vulnerability and apprenticeship. Both Natasha and Ava keep their feelings hidden, and for the exact same reasons: being vulnerable before has hurt them, and they’ve been trained to be self-reliant. Their sameness is the thing that drives them apart, but that doesn’t mean the two don’t get to kick butt together sometimes. Ava is essentially a smaller version of Natasha, but in a way that deepens, not reduces, the characterization of both of them.
I’m not very familiar with Black Widow beyond the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so there may have been some references scattered throughout the book that would have been enriched by more knowledge. However, Forever Red also fit nicely into the world of the movies, including a spot-on, funny Agent Coulson and a Tony Stark who acts just almost shameless enough to be Robert Downey Jr.’s interpretation of Iron Man.
Alex Manor is a bit of a weak spot in a strong book, and in a way, author Margaret Stohl is aware of it. In an interview, she said she was conscious of the role reversal that put a male character in the role of the tagalong love interest. Despite this awareness, the most dramatic relationship in the book is a predictable love-at-first-sight tale.
Ava and Alex may have the most dramatic relationship, but it’s not the most important. That distinction goes to Ava and Natasha, followed by Alex and Natasha, creating a triangle of three characters more connected than even they know at first. Natasha is a loner, but instead of reinforcing this over and over, Stohl forces Black Widow to work with people who are connected to her.
The book is all about agents who can’t remember their pasts, but can still feel the repercussions, and the cracks, from the things with which they were once involved. (The Winter Soldier would fit right in.) Natasha can’t ignore the connection, since it’s essential to the mission, and this lets both her and Ava open up in a unique way. She’s funny, too, with lines like “This isn’t my first last stand.” Clips from interviews with her and another S.H.I.E.L.D. agent also showcase witty, fun dialogue with voices that perfectly match the movie versions of the characters.
Unfortunately, the book isn’t perfect all around. The love story, as previously mentioned, is built on more plot and convenience than characterization, although one could argue that that makes it more, not less, integral to the story. The dialogue between Alex and his friends sometimes perfectly captures teenage inventiveness, and sometimes becomes so chipper as to seem saccharine. One key moment seemed to hinge on Black Widow putting herself into a pretty obvious trap, and even though she realizes it later, the scene could have been more exciting if it had been presented as more of an accident and less of an oversight. Another big reveal is fairly obvious, if not executed exactly as I expected. I have a feeling this book will leave a lot for Marvel fans to talk about.
Speaking of Marvel, Forever Red’s portrayal of the larger MCU world brought a different, interesting perspective to the one seen in the movies. This is still the world of the well-intentioned but rather dictatorial S.H.I.E.L.D., an organization that keeps Ava in essentially a cell while saying the captivity is for her own good. On the other hand, the teenage characters idolize superheroes. Alex is more than familiar with the stars of the Marvel universe, including owning (and modifying) posters of them. This is played for both humor and emotion – in a world where Black Widow tends to be left off of Avengers merchandise and out of Avengers conversations, seeing a boy awestruck by a female hero was encouraging.
The world of the Avengers was used well to illustrate why no one picked up on Ava’s dream powers, too – as her friend Oksana says, “This is America.” There are superheroes and alien attacks here. Forever Red doesn’t forget that the Marvel world exists in the wake of an alien invasion.
Some readers might lament that a story titled Black Widow isn’t actually told from the perspective of Natasha very often, and indeed, Ava and Alex are really the stars. However, if an author has to tell her book from the perspective of new characters, Stohl has done it the right way by using them to bounce off Black Widow, as well as inserting her voice in the interludes between chapters. I wouldn’t have minded more scenes from Natasha’s perspective, but even without them, I still feel like I know her better than I did based on the movies alone.
Partially, that might be because Natasha is still the only one of the core Avengers group who hasn’t headlined a movie. Forever Red—and the upcoming sequel announced at NYCC 2015—aren’t going to replace that big-screen opportunity. Forever Red, though, was an enjoyable and empowering story for the super secret agent. The new characters (mostly) held their own in a Marvel universe that felt bright and entertaining, and had a lot of girl power.
Megan Crouse is a staff writer.