Meet Ana Orlova—as a child she was the subject of secret Russian military experiments run by the Red Room (the same group that trained Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow) until she was rescued by Black Widow and placed under S.H.I.E.L.D. protection. Unfortunately Ana feels abandoned by Black Widow and more imprisoned than protected by S.H.I.E.L.D. She escapes S.H.I.E.L.D.’s custody and starts making a life for herself living on the streets of New York City.
When children all over Eastern Europe start to go missing, Natasha starts to suspect that her old teacher in the Red Room has started a new training school. At first she thinks Ana might be a target for the Red Room, but comes to realize that Ana may be the key to stopping them.
Ana is initially reluctant to trust Natasha, or have anything to do with S.H.I.E.L.D. again, but as the plot unfolds both Ana and Natasha come to realize that they need each other to unravel the mysteries of their separate pasts, and stop the new threat from the Red Room.
If you pick up Black Widow: Forever Red thinking that it was going to be the nuanced back story for Black Widow that the Avengers movies have thus far declined to tell, or (since it is a YA novel, after all) that it is going to be about a teenage Natasha Romanoff becoming Black Widow, you’re going to be annoyed and disappointed. However, if you pick up Black Widow: Forever Red understanding that it is the origin story for a new teenage superhero (by the end of the book she’s going by Red Widow) for whom Black Widow acts as an aspirational mentor figure, then the book is quite enjoyable. As it turns out, Red Widow is a new canon Marvel-verse superhero(ine) who was introduced in Mockingbird: S.H.I.E.L.D. 50th Anniversary issue #1. Black Widow: Forever Red provides further back story for this new character.
That’s not to say that the Black Widow: Forever Red contains no back story for Black Widow; hers is one of the three voices that tells the story. But, the narrative focus of the novel is Ana Orlova’s rescue from the evil clutches of the Red Room, her escape from the slightly more well-meaning clutches of S.H.I.E.L.D., and her eventual return to S.H.I.E.L.D. as an agent in training rather than as a ward/prisoner. Natasha’s story mirrors and informs Ana’s, but it does not form the core of the novel.
As an origin story for Red Widow, Black Widow: Forever Red is not bad. I have some minor quibbles with the didacticism of the fight sequences. I understand the author is trying to show how Natasha (and Ana) have been trained to evaluate a room and then execute the most efficient protocol for taking down anyone in their way. Unfortunately, in writing I found it clumsy and overly explained.
I have a more significant quibble with the love story between Ana and Alex which I think is supposed to function as the emotional heart of this novel, and also as the tragic event that fuels Ana’s subsequent identity as Red Widow (spoiler – he gets fridged). Unfortunately, I don’t think the novel puts the work in to earn the romance between Ana and Alex. And frankly, Ana’s got enough tragedy in her past what with being used for dubious medical experimentation by the Red Room, dead parents, and then being the ward/prisoner of S.H.I.E.L.D. for what was left of her childhood. A dead boyfriend she’s known for less than a week when he dies is neither here nor there in terms of an event likely to scar her psyche.
The connection between Alex and Natasha is more interesting, and I wish that the novel had spent more time exploring that (and the impact his death has/will have on Natasha) than it did on having Ana and Alex canoodling in the midst of peril. But, while I didn’t buy into the Ana/Alex romance it wasn’t enough to deter me from whipping through the novel.
The conspiracy plot is unlikely and convoluted, but it’s an Avengers-movie-verse tie in novel and anyone who goes looking for a wholly plausible and underplayed plot in that circumstance has seriously missed the point. Once I got over the desire for the book to be about Natasha I enjoyed myself a great deal, and I’m looking forward to the sequel.
Black Widow: Forever Red
by Margaret Stohl
Marvel Press, 2015
Publisher Age Rating: