Black Widow Forever Red is a young adult novel about, among other characters, S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natasha Romanoff. It takes place in a post-Avengers world, where Black Widow, Iron Man, and the rest of the team are celebrities (but Coulson is alive and working with Black Widow? It doesn’t fit the Marvel Cinematic/TV Universe perfectly). It’s very much a novel for fans of the movies and/or comics—there’s not much time spent filling in any gaps about the world, and things from The Avengers are mentioned as though the reader will know what they’re talking about. Since my family and I are all fans, this was no problem for us.
Like many things in comic-related media, the plot is convoluted in a way that makes sense as you read it but sounds silly when you try to summarize it, so I’m not going to bother. I’ll just tell you that Natasha and two 17 year old kids, Ava and Alex, need to save the world.
The dialogue and the snippets from a Department of Defense hearing that come between all the chapters sound like they could be coming straight from a Joss Whedon script, and I frequently found myself imagining scenes from a movie version of the novel. It’s a great read for older tween fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
I’m going to start with the big one. MAJOR spoiler coming here. Alex, one of the young protagonists, dies thus saving the world, his team, and the mission. It was well telegraphed—the DoD hearing is explicitly about a death in the line of duty, and it’s clear that there wouldn’t be a hearing if everything went smoothly. But I still found myself hoping that it wouldn’t be one of the obvious characters, that this was a red herring so the reader would know the stakes were high but everyone we cared about would still be alive in the end. No such luck. I can see why, narratively, this character couldn’t be part of the ongoing timeline, but it was still a blow. Although death of good guys certainly does happen in the MCU, it’s usually minor characters or bad guys who need to redeem themselves or people who turn out to not actually be dead, and so I hoped. Alas.
Violence and Killing
Black Widow is an assassin. A really effective one. She has killed many times before and continues to do so. Certainly the things she does result in the deaths of plenty of unnamed and probably antagonistic characters. There’s a flashback to after her first kill in the Red Room, which affects her pretty deeply. The climax of her story arc is killing the guy who trained her, and it’s a drawn out scene with a purposeful shot to the head. It’s what we might call cold-blooded, but it’s a positive outcome to her story arc. When the DoD interrogator assumes she feels nothing when she kills, she contradicts him. She says every gun shot goes both ways, injuring part of the person who pulls the trigger. She’s a very broken person who shoves her emotions away, but it’s not that she doesn’t have them.
Natasha does her best to make sure Ava doesn’t have to kill people because she doesn’t want her to have to deal with this. Ava doesn’t kill the bad guy, but she does apparently take out some of the faceless bad guys without too much trouble.
The bad guy, Ivan, ran the Red Room where Natasha was trained and other programs where he worked to turn kids, including Ava, into part of his brainwashed army. There are memories of the girls being chained up—to bed posts, to radiators, to the pipes under the sink. When we first meet Ava, she’s hooked up to some awful machine with electrodes attached to her head. Ivan is a horrible human being and both Natasha and Ava have been through some unspeakably awful things.
Ava has been somehow linked to Natasha so that she actually has access to her brain—she has her skills, her knowledge, etc. This is obviously pretty unnerving for both of them.
Natasha realizes that both she and Alex have had their memories wiped. Everything they think they know is manufactured, or at least might be manufactured. It seems that a decent number of Natasha’s memories are still accurate, she’s just had others completely removed. Alex learns that his entire childhood is a lie. This makes them both neurotic and paranoid, unsure of who to trust—including not knowing if they can trust themselves.
Ava and Alex fall in love—their emotions are very 17-year-olds-facing-the-end-of-the-world-as-they-know-it intense. There’s some kissing, a good bit of cuddling, possibly a bit more, although nothing is explicit. Almost immediately after they meet, they’re already at the point where they would do almost anything for each other.
Homelessness and Runaways
Ava and her friend Oksana live in the basement of the Y. Ava ran away from S.H.I.E.L.D. and Oksana ran away from the dad she doesn’t get along with. Natasha admires how self-sufficient they are. But the girls can’t take for granted things like showers, clean clothes, warm food. In the end, Ava returns to S.H.I.E.L.D. to train as an agent.
Grief and Loss
Both Natasha and Ava have lost family, friends, home—pretty much anything you can think of. Alex has as well, but thanks to the memory wipe he wasn’t aware of it. When they lose Alex, it’s quite a blow. Ava finds ways to remember him—his loss will always be a part of her, but she learns to find strength in it.
Alex always gets in fights, despite himself. He gets thrown out of a fencing tournament before it even begins. He’s not at all a bad kid, but he has anger issues that only get explained later.
Alex has a Black Widow tattoo that he doesn’t remember getting. He seems to assume he got blackout drunk and got it then, although we never see him or his friends drinking. The one party they go to is Alex’s friend’s little sisters, and it’s all junior high kids without any drinking or smoking or anything.
Early on, Natasha notes that some thugs are carrying their guns “Mexican style” and she wonders how they keep from blowing their balls off.
Ava stole all kinds of tech from S.H.I.E.L.D. when she ran away. The kids break all kinds of rules, but it’s that kind of story.
This is a wonderful book for older tweens (yes, both girls and boys) and adults who are fans of the MCU. It’s pretty dark for younger readers, going darker than the movies usually do, and not shying away from Natasha’s role as an assassin—her modus operandi is to kill people, so you’ll want to be sure you’re fine with your kid reading a book where one of the major good guys kills frequently and effectively. Alex’s death is pretty brutal, so make sure your kid is ready to handle that.
Black Widow Forever Red by Margaret Stohl
Published in 2015 by Marvel Press
First in what promises to be a series!
Read my hardcover copy