*** Caution: This review contains spoilers! ***
I’m a bit behind on my reading (Let’s blame it on the 9-month-old. 🙂 ), but I’ve finally gotten the chance to read Marvel’s latest YA addition – Black Widow: Forever Red by Margaret Stohl (co-author of the Beautiful Creatures series).
I was really excited when Marvel first announced it’s foray into YA in 2013 with the novels Rogue Touch and the She-Hulk Diaries. Although Rogue Touch wasn’t one of my favorites, I really enjoyed the She-Hulk Diaries – it was a fun book – and was waiting patiently for Marvel to decide to add more YA novels to its burgeoning series.
I was about to give up on that idea, sure that Marvel must have also given up on it, but – finally – two years later, Marvel has released its third YA novel with Forever Red. (Under their own press – Marvel Press.) (And there will be more to follow – not only a sequel to Forever Red, but also novels about Captain Marvel and other popular Marvel characters. Check out “Marvel’s Young Adult Book Series Could Be Its Most Important Project Yet” for more information.)
Before I get into my review of Forever Red, I just want to mention that I, for one, am very happy Marvel is getting into the novel market. Although I have come to really love and enjoy the superhero genre (thanks in large part to Marvel’s movie-making efforts), I’ve never been a huge comics reader.
When I was a kid, I did read one series in particular – DC’s Princess Amethyst – mostly because it was the only cover I usually spotted with a girl on it (and also she rode a unicorn-pegasus – definitely a big selling point for my unicorn-loving 8 year-old self!) But growing up in the 80s as I did, I was somehow convinced comics were for boys. (So glad that stereotype is rapidly dissolving for a new generation of comics fans!) And so, I usually left all the comics purchasing to my older brother.
More recently, as an adult, I have begun to read more comics as well as graphic novels (partly in response to picking them up through our sci-fi and fantasy book club and partly due to my husband handing me things with a – “Here, you should read this one. You’ll like it.” – which, to his credit, I usually do. 🙂 )
Despite this, however (or probably because of this – of not growing up with comics), as much as I enjoy the art form, I still tend to prefer a good old-fashioned novel for its ability to carry me away and lose me in its story. So, I am definitely thrilled to be able to read about some of my favorite superheroes in novel form.
And it seems I may not be alone in that. In creating and marketing its YA novels, Marvel’s intention is to reach out to more of its female audience, which is to Marvel’s credit in recognizing that there is a female audience (yay, Marvel!). The largest growing segment of that female audience appears to be in the 17-26 year-old category. (We old fogeys were already around. 🙂 ) Hence, the foray into YA. According to market research, however, as much as women enjoy comics – (despite still-prevailing stereotypes, there is a sizeable audience of female comic-book readers) – there are others, myself included – who enjoy reading novels either “in addition to” or “in preference of” reading comics. And it is to this market that Marvel is attempting to appeal. (See “Marvel’s Young Adult Book Series Could Be Its Most Important Project Yet.”)
Okay, now on to Forever Red.
Stohl’s novel was definitely my favorite so far. As mentioned, I wasn’t too thrilled with Rogue Touch, although I did enjoy the She-Hulk Diaries, which was a very fun read. (I’m also a big She-Hulk fan. 🙂 Hers are one of the comic series I discovered as an adult and now currently read.) However, in addition to the joy of being able to read a novel about a beloved character – Black Widow – I also found Forever Red to be thoroughly well-written; I greatly appreciated Stohl’s writing style. It had a definite “I don’t want to put this down” quality.
Although I must admit, I don’t know much about the Black Widow character other than through Scarlett Johansson’s portrayal in the Iron Man, Captain America, and Avenger’s films, I felt Stohl’s portrayal of her felt authentic to what I knew of the character (which is definitely an important factor to fans).
I also really enjoyed this glimpse into Black Widow’s past as well as into her heart and mind (which is something I feel the novel format itself excels at above and beyond other forms of storytelling.) It allowed me to connect with the character in a much deeper way than I ever had in the films.
(Spoiler Alert: Those pesky spoilers begin here.) One of those aspects of her past gives us a glimpse into her family of origin, including the discovery a younger brother she didn’t remember because of a brain wipe she authorized in order to protect him. This addition of a brother to the storyline gives a character who normally sports attachment issues a humanizing quality that not only makes her more relatable and, frankly, likeable, but also has the added effect of amping up her hero factor by showing us the lengths to which Natasha will go to protect a loved one.
I was, however, a bit disappointed in the ending. Although from the beginning, the novel sets the reader up to expect the death of one of the characters (and a reasonable expectation would certainly be that the character who bites it will be Natasha’s brother), I found myself wishing and hoping all along that it wouldn’t be him. I suppose that’s a credit to the writing, however – to make the reader care enough for a character that when they do meet their end, we are not happy about it. I do also understand why it probably needed to happen, as the only brother Natasha Romanoff is purported to have in the established cannon is deceased.
The main thrust of the storyline, however, is actually between Natasha and a sister-like character, Ava, who is given insight (actually an all-access pass) to Natasha’s innermost thoughts, feelings, and memories through a quantum entanglement experiment designed by her former Red Room teacher (and arch-nemesis) Ivan Somodorov. Although Ava and Natasha are not related, the real sibling “issues” take place between these two characters, complete with sibling rivalry, abandonment issues, and ultimately empathy, love, and understanding.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the novel. However, I do have one small gripe, which is less a gripe aimed at Forever Red than it is at the female YA market in general. All three of Marvel’s YA novels thus far, including Forever Red, have featured a romance as a main thread in their storylines. It’s been a bit of a pet peeve of mine for a while now that the market in general seems to believe that the way to appeal to female fans (especially young female fans) is through romance – and romance only.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy a good romance, and I honestly did actually enjoy the romance in Forever Red, which takes place between Ava and Alexi. (I am actually glad Stohl didn’t attempt a romance with Natasha’s character, as I feel this would have taken away from the main emotional thread, which was the sister-like relationship between Natasha and Ava. I’m also not sure at this point that Natasha is even capable of a “successful” romance, being the attachment-disordered character that she is. . .)
What bothers me is this seeming prevailing concept that the only way to appeal to female fans is through romance. As if that’s all we’re interested in. (This is done to us adult women as well. See “Ryan Reynolds is Dropping Some Truth About Women and Superhero Movies.”)
So although I didn’t exactly mind this in Forever Red, per se, I do think it would be really refreshing to, for once, see/read a female-driven storyline that did not feature a romance at its core.
I do, however, highly recommend this novel and am looking forward to more Marvel YA novels in the future.
Have you read Forever Red? Let us know what you thought in the comments below!