I had the privilege this past October of buying the second-to-last signed copy of Margaret Stohl’s new young adult novel Black Widow: Forever Red from the good folks at the Disney booth at New York Comic Con. I’d been looking forward to this book for quite a while, and holding it in my hands felt like I was holding a grand prize at the end of a long marathon.
So how did it hold up to my expectations?
Forever Red centers on newly introduced character Ava Orlova who was rescued from the villainous Red Room teacher Ivan Somodorov when she was eight years old by none other than Natasha Romanoff herself. Now 17, Ava has spent most of her young life at first attempting to get into contact with Natasha again, but most of the time she’s slipping out of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s grasp whenever they try and close in on her. Also at center stage is Alex Manor, a boy who has been plaguing Ava’s dreams before she even meets him in real life. Once Natasha is finally thrown into the mix, these three characters’ lives are shaken up like a Coke bottle ready to explode.
Okay, well, what worked? First of all, Stohl’s grasp on Natasha’s internal and external dialogue is pretty spot-on. Natasha is equal parts snark, wit, intelligence, and dry humor, with the same level of mysteriousness that drew a lot of fans to her side in the first place. Ava, too, is a new character that I enjoyed most of the time. Her determination not to fall victim to any particular organization’s control and her heightened self-reliance were refreshing to read about, and it was especially fun seeing a teenager interacting with Natasha. Considering the largest age demographic for Marvel fans is 18-21 year-olds, it wouldn’t be too out-of-left-field to assume that a lot of fans have imagined themselves alongside their favorite characters. Ava, in a way, gets to live the dream a lot of us have, which makes her inclusion all the more interesting to read.
The downside? Natasha Romanoff essentially winds up playing babysitter to two teenagers for a majority of 399 pages. This was one of the biggest letdowns of the book: that ‘Black Widow’ is part of the title and yet we don’t actually get much page time with Natasha at all. So much of the story is dedicated to developing Ava’s circumstances and tying in her role with Alex (as well as poorly attempting to develop their slapdash, insta-love romance, because apparently even an official Marvel novel needs that YA brand of cliché) that there’s little to no time to learn much about Natasha that isn’t already either common knowledge or information gleaned through the comics.
And trust me, I’m not spoiling much by saying there’s a romance between Ava and Alex. I mean, c’mon: the girl has dreams about this guy before they even meet each other. How many other YA novels have had that plotline woven in them before?
This ties into why I think that’s one of the other disappointments of this book: it felt so tired and overdone. It felt like every other generic ‘special girl meets dark and mysterious brooding boy whom she’s somehow destined to meet/be with’ title on the shelf — and yet this is supposed to be Black Widow’s big introduction into the literary world. I wanted to read about Natasha and learn more about her, not follow two teenagers around while they make googly-eyes at each other and profess their love for one another in the most un-romantic, un-interesting, bland dialogue possible.
Whenever I put this book down to do other things, I did so with a sigh. It was disappointing to read so much about Ava and Alex and yet have to scramble around for scraps where Natasha was the central focus of the narrative. You do learn a bit more about her through the course of the story — her family life from her childhood comes into play — but that gets sidelined fairly quickly. There’s no breathing room and no moment given where we can properly react to these discoveries with Natasha because the story just barrels onward. Who cares about Black Widow’s origin? the book asks. We need more time devoted to these two lovebirds!
There’s nothing wrong with YA novels. I love YA. My favorite TV show at the moment (The 100) is based off of a YA series. The problem here is that it was less of what you’d expect when you hear the phrase ‘official Marvel novel’ and more of a generic kind of YA story. The characterization was pretty great where Natasha was concerned, but aside from Ava’s self-determination and occasional attitude, she too fell victim to blandness. And don’t even get me started on Alex, who could’ve been replaced with a cardboard cutout of Edward Cullen and would’ve probably been equally as engaging and dynamic.
Ultimately, Forever Red was about two teenagers making really bad choices in the face of a threat, a threat which could’ve been great as the center point of Natasha’s story. But it’s not, and she’s not the main character, despite what the title would have you believe. If you were looking forward to finally getting a giant hunk of Natasha Romanoff action in your reading material, you’ll unfortunately have to look elsewhere.
2.5 out of 5 stars
Gabby Taub, the Fantasy Reviewer at Girls in Capes, is a recent graduate of New York University. She enjoys reading, writing, watching TV, and spending time getting lost among the bookshelves at Strand Bookstore.