Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Superweek Review: Black Widow: Forever Red by Margaret Stohl

We had so much fun with the Superhero week we put together recently that we decided to do it again. (Plus, we still have a lot of superhero reads in our TBR piles.) All this week we're bringing you more super-themed reviews and features.

Black Widow: Forever Red
(Black Widow #1)
Margaret Stohl
Release: October 13, 2015
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Enter the world of the Avengers’ iconic master spy…

Natasha Romanoff is one of the world’s most lethal assassins. Trained from a young age in the arts of death and deception, Natasha was given the title of Black Widow by Ivan Somodorov, her brutal teacher at the Red Room, Moscow’s infamous academy for operatives.

Ava Orlova is just trying to fit in as an average Brooklyn teenager, but her life has been anything but average.The daughter of a missing Russian quantum physicist, Ava was once subjected to a series of ruthless military experiments—until she was rescued by Black Widow and placed under S.H.I.E.L.D. protection. Ava has always longed to reconnect with her mysterious savior, but Black Widow isn’t really the big sister type.

Until now.

When children all over Eastern Europe begin to go missing, and rumors of smuggled Red Room tech light up the dark net, Natasha suspects her old teacher has returned—and that Ava Orlova might be the only one who can stop him. To defeat the madman who threatens their future, Natasha and Ava must unravel their pasts. Only then will they discover the truth about the dark-eyed boy with an hourglass tattoo who haunts Ava’s dreams…
Given the increasing unlikelyhood that Black Widow will ever get her own movie, I was pretty excited for her to get a book. And since it was a YA book, I originally thought it would be a prequel story about a teenaged Natasha Romanoff. It turns out Natasha's one of three main characters in Black Widow: Forever Red and the only one who's not a teenager. Some of her back story is revealed over the course of the book though.

After each chapter, there's a page from the S.H.I.E.L.D. file that began with the mission where Natasha was sent to kill Ivan and ended up rescuing Ava. Most of those pages are parts of a transcript from a D.O.D. hearing about a Line of Duty Death. Natasha's testimony reminds me of the scene in Congress at the end of Winter Soldier, which I loved. At first I was more interested in those pages than the chapters they separated, but I did eventually get attached to the characters and invested in their story.

Reading one of those transcripts early in the book, I figured out whose death was being investigated. I looked back later and it's not actually revealed. I just inferred it for some reason. But thinking I knew what was going to happen kept me from getting too attached to that character. I think the actual death, and really the whole book, had a lot less impact for me than it should have because of that.

I did really enjoy the action scenes. As you would expect, the book is full of them. And I was surprised by Alex's connection to the story. I had a theory, but it was way off. I also liked the fact that there are so many familiar characters in addition to Black Widow. Coulson shows up periodically to provide snark and mission support. So does a certain tech genius Avenger. I can't help but hear the actors who play them when I read those characters though, and they didn't always sound quite right. I admit, that's not really a fair standard to hold the book to though.

I was initially annoyed by how much the characters in the book seemed to mention The Avengers, and superheroes in general. But right after I finished the book,  I read a Tor.com article about growing up in the MCU, which is just as true for Alex and Ava as it is for Spider-man. It made me realize that it was world building and not just name dropping.

What still troubles me though, is the timeline, both in relation to the Avengers and within Forever Red. I was perfectly comfortable placing the events in Forever Red before Captain America: Winter Soldier even though the book released a year later. They would have to be since there are S.H.I.E.L.D. bases that would not have existed after the movie. But then there's a reference to Bucky Barnes. I know that the movies and the comics don't follow the same timeline and it makes more sense for the book to be consistent with the comics. But since I have only seen the movies, I automatically try to make it fit with what I know. I wish the book had an author's note or something at the beginning to give me the right context.

I also wish Natasha's back story had more (metaphorical) time stamps. Natasha is at most ten years older than Alex, who is seventeen, and six or seven years seems much more likely. That would make her a teenager when she rescues Ava at the beginning of the story. At that point, she was already a S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent. There's no mention of how old she was when she defected, but I can't figure out a way to make the math feel right. One of the hearing transcripts says that Natasha's date of birth is classified, which means I'm not probably not supposed to think about it so much.

So while I enjoyed Forever Red, I spent too much time trying to figure out its puzzles and not enough just watching the explosions. That's probably my fault just as much as the book's. I'm happy that there's going to be a sequel though. I'm really interested in where the story seems to be going at the end of the book.


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