Author: Margaret Stohl
Publisher: Marvel Press
Unique Elements: Novelization revolving around the Avengers’ assassin, Black Widow.
Series: Marvel Young Adult Series
Release Date: October 13, 2015
Number of Pages: 417 pages
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Reviewed by: Veronika Gupsos
Final Score: 3.5 Moons (out of 5)
When S.H.I.E.L.D. operative (and former assassin) Natasha Romanov rescues 9 year old Ava Orlova from the same sort of Red Room training facility that turned her into a killer decades before, she’s forced to confront her own fear of intimacy and compassion as she discovers that her oldest enemy has inextricably linked her to the girl she thought she rescued.
8 years later, Natasha, Ava, and a somehow familiar stranger named Alex will have to use all their skills and abilities to outwit a dangerous Russian megalomaniac and stop the insidious “Forever Red” protocol before it undermines and destroys the free world.
Forever Red’s storyline is undoubtedly the strongest part of this novel. It’s well worth reading, so I will avoid any spoilers other than to say that this explores scifi tech and quantum physics in some incredibly fascinating ways. Should Marvel Studios consider making a Black Widow film, the story of this novel could definitely be turned into a very interesting script within their cinematic universe. (With that said, although the descriptions in the book seem to describe the Romanov from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s not clear whether this novel is canon within that universe-nor, despite the heavy inclusion of Phil Coulson from ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., is it clear if it’s canon within the unofficially delineated television universe.)
Despite the great story concepts, the book does have some pacing issues. This is most notably caused by a popular narrative device that’s designed to blend memory and future together in the form of an ever present trial that the protagonist is going through (forcing them to recall the entire story in flashback in chunks). When it works perfectly, it’s a powerful storytelling device. Unfortunately, Forever Red is one of those books where it just doesn’t work very well. There were a few times it marginally helped drive certain points in the story home, but, most of the time, it pulled me out of the storyline in a way that was distracting. (Especially since the future components always revolve around Natasha Romanov, while the chapters before and after these scenes are told from her perspective less than a third of the time.)
While the ending was a little predictable, it was still quite solid. While I personally would’ve liked a little different ending, as I think it would’ve explored a different level of complexity, what is there is still interestingly complex and leaves you feeling fulfilled.
Trying to nail the behavior and thought process of someone like Natasha Romanov–who is often her own worst enemy and can be as hard to empathize with as the Hulk–is pretty rough for any content creator, but especially a novelist, who has only their words to describe, imagine, interpret, visualize, stitch-together, and breathe emotion into a character and their story. (While I personally found the most fully-realized portrayal of Natasha Romanov’s character to be through the film version of Captain America:The Winter Soldier, I also fully admit that films cheat. In a film, the words from the writer’s script only have to describe the story, because they have a director to imagine them, an actor to interpret them, a cinematographer to visualize them, an editor to stitch them together, and even a score composer to help breathe emotion into them.)
Margaret Stohl surveys a central character in Natasha Romanov that is terrified of letting herself love, be loved, or even feel real emotions for anyone else, and who is addicted to using rage and a mask of indifference to try to keep herself safe.
While the concept is quite good, the actual implementation didn’t work so well. Too often it felt like Stohl was trying too hard to force Natasha’s character to do things to fit a needed scene, at which point it drifted into caricature, rather than character. (With the actual storyline in the book, Natasha would’ve been far better as a supporting character in service to the co-leads of Ava and Alex. While some would claim that you can’t title a book-or film-after a character who just enables a story, the recent Mad Max: Fury Road would emphatically disagree.)
With such a heavy emphasis on female characters in this book, I was somewhat surprised that Stohl’s most accurate rendering of a well-known Silver Screen character was in the form of the charmingly mysoginistic Tony Stark. She nails him in absolutely perfect Robert-Downey-Jr.-portrayed life. Stark’s presence in a helper capacity (similar to how I wish Widow herself had been) was somewhat like Oracle to Batman or Q to James Bon (or J.A.R.V.I.S. to Stark himself). He added a much needed dash of levity and American bravado in the face of an overwhelming amount of Russian stoicism.
The interactions between 17 year old protagonists Ava and Alex (through whom 2/3 of the story was told) were pretty well realized, although their choices also tended to drift into strangely unbelievable directions, even for teens.
A book about outcasts, secret agents, dark conspiracies, and the lies we tell ourselves to survive is about as Gothic as it gets. With that said, after reading (and writing about) Young Adult books like Ready Player One, The Giver, Armada, and, most recently, Star Wars: Lost Stars, this is one of the few YA titles I’ve personally reviewed that really does feel extremely focused on a 13 to 17 year old female audience.
There are actually times where action scenes are forestalled (or at least FEEL forestalled) to make time for excessively long discussions about feelings, love, and “hard-to-describe” emotions from the teen protagonists.
While these are the types of things associated with books like The Vampire Diaries, Twilight, and The Morganville Vampires, these felt disconnected from a novel that’s meant to help flesh out Black Widow, who has trouble admitting to liking people, much less truly loving them. (Perhaps if there had been more sarcastic banter from Natasha about having to protect young lovers–rather than just abrupt comments from her pertaining to them–it might’ve made these areas more palatable.)
While it’s not in the realm of Harlequin or anything like that, Forever Red’s lack of a more subtle hand at romance did distract somewhat from the otherwise strong story and lowering its Gothic fit.
Forever Red has a very cool story arch and delves into the psyches of some very multifaceted characters. While its uneven dynamics and overly-effusive romantic notes were missteps for me, it’s still a strong attempt to explore a very compound protagonist and a respectable book that’s worth owning. (Plus, supporting Black Widow in this incarnation is a great way to show Marvel how interested we are in more Black Widow content-encouraging them to green light sequels and maybe even pull the trigger on the standalone film so many of us have craved since last year’s Captain America: Winter Soldier.)
Story: 5.0 Moons (out of 5)
Dynamics: 3.0 Moons (out of 5)
Gothic Fit: 3.5 Moons (out of 5)
Final Score (not an average): 3.5 Moons (out of 5)