Black Widow is the star of Margaret Stohl‘s latest novel – Forever Red. Fully integrated into the Marvel Universe, it promises to open up the field of Young Adult for Marvel and to reveal things about Natasha Romanoff‘s past. Does it deliver?
A KGB hideout in the port of Odessa, Ukraine, is under surveillance. S.H.I.E.L.D., the Strategic Hazard Interventions Espionage and Logistics Department, has eyes on an operation conducted by Ivan Semodorov, a drill instructor of the KGB-led Red Room. He is experimenting on children. But S.H.I.E.L.D. sent a uniquely qualified agent to deal with the situation. Detaining Somodorov is not an option. Their agent is Natasha Romanoff aka. The Black Widow. She was raised and trained by Somodorov to be the perfect assassin. She’s smart, she’s stealthy, speaks five languages, knows how to operate pretty much every weapon under the sun and she’s a tactical genius. For her, taking out Somodorov and a small army is no big deal.
Until Natasha Romanoff sees what Somodorov is up to. He has hooked a red-haired girl up to a machine that is generating some form of output. Having been in countless similar situations during her training under Somodorov, The Black Widow takes pity on the girl, but the mission comes first. Somodorov‘s plan is foiled, the girl is freed and – due to lack of parents as they’re dead – put in S.H.I.E.L.D. custody. This girl is Ava Orlova.
Years later, Ava Orlova has escaped S.H.I.E.L.D. facility 7B and has lived on the streets of New York City for a few years. She has a friend named Oksana and a cat named Sasha Cat. It’s not a comfortable life, but it is a life. She dreams of a young man, Alex Manor whom she refers to as Alexei Manoroff in her dreams. Having taken up fencing as a hobby, Ava meets Alex at a tournament… just in time for Ivan Somodorov to return and start his endgame in which he could take down 100 key figures of world politics.
Enter the Mary Sue
As interesting as the plot of Margaret Stohl‘s Black Widow: Forever Red sounds, it’s the execution that is lacking. Clearly, Margaret Stohl – an author who has written 47 books, mostly dealing with Young Adult (YA) themes from the looks of it – was not up to the task or had to deal with severe editorial mandates. Be it as it may, the story feels contrived at best and ridiculous as well as insulting at worst. When talking about this book with her, our event coordinator Sarah said «This sounds like glorified fanfiction».
It becomes quickly apparent that the character of Natasha Romanoff, the person we came to read about, is a guest star in her own book. The focus is on Ava Orlova and Alex Manor, two bland and generic teens that happen to meet before it all hits the fan and they’re in an extraordinary situation where they must survive something that is much bigger than they ever imagined. Over the course of all this, it’s revealed that they both have abilities and skills surpassing everything they thought they had. In the middle of all of this, they discover their deep love for one another. Thus, standard fanfare when it comes to YA.
This in and of itself isn’t such a bad thing, really. There are plenty of books that survive on this stuff alone, only that they don’t delegate the book’s main character to a siderole. Unless, of course, we venture in the territory of bad fanfiction where having a Mary Sue character has become the norm in some circles.
In fan fiction, a Mary Sue or, in case of a male character, Gary Stu or Marty Stu is an idealized character, often but not necessarily an author insert and/or wish-fulfillment.
The main problem with the characters in relation to the story at hand becomes apparent when we look at the character traits they possess and the world they suddenly find themselves in. Ava Orlova is a wayward teenager, somewhat angsty but tough. Alex Manor is a regular teenager with surprisingly few defining character traits other than being dreamy and having a penchant for getting in trouble.
All of a sudden, they find themselves in a world where men fly through the air in metal suits, literal Gods swing their hammers and international spymasters scheme and plot. There’s a chapter where Natasha Romanoff enlists Tony Stark‘s help to solve part of the mystery surrounding Ava Orlova. It is then that the two teenagers, having never received any kind of specialized training due to still being in High School or squatting in a basement, are completely in over their head. The Black Widow and Iron Man debate quantums, KGB operations and high-tech. Due to the point of the story, they need to go on about this for several pages, which – of course – would make them the star of the scene.
This would risk the readers forgetting the forgettable main characters of Ava and Alex so they start mouthing off to Tony Stark. They’re being impudent, obnoxious… perfect brats. And these are the characters we’re supposed to care about?
World… What World?
At some point during Forever Red the question arises what exactly we’re reading. Because Margaret Stohl gives very little in the way of characterization or character evolution and also neglects to give us a sense of a world either. Very few things are described. Most egregiously, there’s a complete lack of description of the more fantastical aspects of the story, such as the S.H.I.E.L.D. Triskelion Base in New York’s Hudson River.
You know, this thing:
See, you now have an image. But in a book that has no pictures in it, a responsible author cannot allow himself or herself to have the reader go figure out the world themselves. In fact, had Margaret Stohl opted to give us a larger sense of the world, she could have improved on characterization in one fell swoop. During the interrogation that frames the entire story of Ava and Alex with some kind of Line of Duty Death hearing, the Department of Defense – apparently a sentient and speaking character in this book – remarks upon Natasha Romanoff‘s nationality and mindset – stereotypically Russian – frequently.
In the book, Margaret Stohl writes the following:
“And where exactly is that, Agent?”
“S.H.I.E.L.D.’s high-security mainframe. I’m thinking the New York Triskeleon. I need to track down a piece of tech, and in a level ten classified world, this one goes to eleven.” She glanced at Ava. “We can have a S.H.I.E.L.D. medic take a look at Ava while we’re at the base.”
How’s about this?
The S.H.I.E.L.D. Triskelion was a gigantic concrete behemoth of utilitarian grey. Having been built over a tiny island in the Hudson river, connected to the main land only by two bridges, both of which guarded around the clock, the Triskelion served both as S.H.I.E.L.D.’s nerve centre and a dry dock for the agency’s greatest weapon: The Helicarriers. These airplane carrier sized floating weapons of war hosted several squadrons of Quinjets – agile, multi-purpose fighter jets – and offered lodging for several thousand crew. About half a dozen of these flying fortresses could dock in the Triskelion’s harbour.
«Typically American. Big, obvious and loud. Who builds an army base in the middle of a peaceful river right across from an equally peaceful residential area with lots of green?»
But that was not what the Triskelion was most famous for. Because next to the rectangle shaped buildings where technicians, engineers and builders were working around the clock to keep Quinjets and the Helicarriers operations, where soldiers trained in both armed and hand to hand combat, where one lucky technician got to work on Captain America’s motorcycle, there was the spire. In this round, twenty-five story high annex to the hangars, the Avengers had their headquarters. The Earth’s mightiest heroes planned their missions from there under the guidance of director Nick Fury and his right hand Maria Hill. Tony Stark conducted experiments that were off the books at Stark Enterprises there. Bruce Banner experimented on new tranquilizers and meditation techniques. Captain America – if the press it to be believed – would watch movies when not working out in the gym while Thor would do his part as the seeming frat boy of the team, drinking while never getting drunk and telling stories of conquest.
Only a fool would attack a building like this, yet Ava knew that Somodorov wouldn’t be stopped by this. Ava knew of the former Soviet tenacity and the will to succeed. She wouldn’t have managed to squat in an inhabited place for so long if she didn’t. If she wasn’t tough as nails, she would have gone back to S.H.I.E.L.D., tail between her legs, and gone back to 7B. So she could only imagine what a man with her determination, Red Room training and a private army could do. Surely concrete walls and a few fighter jets wouldn’t be much of an obstacle. Besides, Ava thought, the Triskelion is not exactly low key. Not a good hideout. «Wait until the Avengers are on a mission, EMP strike to disrupt comms and tech, C4 to get through the main gate. Automatic lockdown will secure the holding cells and hermetically seal them. Bring a codebreaker» flitted through Ava’s mind. She asked herself how she knew this. She didn’t know but she was certain that she had found a way to attack the Triskelion. All she knew was that she was not safe inside a building that was among the safest on the planet.
Va in the Triskeleon
As if that was not enough, Margaret Stohl makes a few capital mistakes. Namely, there are typos in her book.
- She keeps referring to it as the Triskeleon. It’s called Triskelion both as a classic pattern and as a comic book building.
- At one point, Ava’s name lacks the first A and becomes Va.
- She can’t remember how to spell Natasha Romanoff‘s name. At some point, she’s called Romanov and then it switches back to the more commonly used Romanoff.
While we’re on the topic of names, Margaret Stohl has no idea how Russian names work. This is evident not only in the failure of romanization of cyrillic letters, but also when main character Alex Manor is revealed to actually have been – somehow, it’s never brought up before or after – part of the experiments that Somodorov conducted. His file is labelled Romanova which – as far as Margaret Stohl apparently knows – is just the Russian version of Romanoff. It’s not.
In Russia, there are a lot of names ending in -ов. This is pronounced off and because westerners are not too good with cyrillic letters (much like 我们不知道汉字), we romanize things. So there are lots of Russian names with the ending -ov or -off. Usually, the family decides on one ending upon entering the west and that’s that. Forever. Typically, they don’t go back and forth.
Russian last names are also indicative of the gender of the person that they name. So a man named Nikolai Ivanov – whose last name means something akin to belonging to Ivan in the sense of him being a son of Ivan – is named Ivanov, because he’s a man.
His sister, due to being a sister a female, is named Olga. Now, Olga’s last name is Ivanova. Because she’s not a son of Ivan, but a daughter. So she gets an a appended.
There is no way that anyone would file the file of the male Alexei Romanoff under the female last name of Romanova. This is not how things work. Despite there being an editor on this book, I doubt that there was much editing done. This is lazy craftsmanship. The author didn’t do research, spellcheck failed and nobody bothered to look up how names are spelled. This alone does not make a book worth its money.
Oh, and have I mentioned the idiocy of Alex Manor aka Alexei Manoroff being a Romanoff. Not because of the plot twist, but because of the name. Does anyone really believe that an intelligence outfit such as the one Ivan Somodorov runs can’t jumble letters and make ROMAN out of MANOR? Or, while we’re at it, why can’t The Black Widow?
That said, Forever Red‘s only genuinely funny moment comes out of the naming of Alex Manor. His mother is named Marilyn. Marilyn Manor. Now what’s a synonym for manor? Mansion? Marilyn Manson?!
Also, I’m not even going to get into the historical mess that Margaret Stohl creates by forgetting that the KGB doesn’t exist anymore but then remembers that the FSB does exist. This is also stuff an editor should have caught.
The Mary Sue Gets Cemented
So far so bad, but it gets worse. Forever Red started on a medium note, but presented itself as a steady slope downhill from there on out. As if it wasn’t bad enough Margaret Stohl decides to – for some reason – up the ante on the idiocy by the end of the book by making her character the ultimate Mary Sue. In the end, Ava Orlova somehow has gained superpowers. She can now generate powerful electric currents in her body. She gained this ability by touching an exploding machine that was overloaded with electricity. It’s the very same machine that gave third degree burns to another character not two pages earlier. Only that she, being only a baseline human, gains superpowers. As opposed to the other baseline human, who gets his hands burnt to a crisp.
Even before that, Ava Orlova is exceptionally crafty, smart, wise and cunning. Over the years, she has lifted a great many items belonging to S.H.I.E.L.D. because, clearly, the world’s best spy agency is in the habit of leaving things just lying around all over the place where wayward teenagers can find them. So whatever situation presents itself, everyone around her is immediately useless and a bumbling idiot. All the while Ava just randomly happens to have the right item at hand. This could also easily have been fixed.
I wrote this over lunch real quick, that fixes the whole issue of Ava being able to just walk out of S.H.I.E.L.D. custody with a ton of spy gear in her pack.
As safe as she had felt when Natasha Romanoff came and saved her from Ivan Semodorov, it was not to last. While the Black Widow was off on missions every day, Ava was kept in a secret location. All she knew was that it was called 7B. It was on one of the seemingly infinte sub-basement floors of an anonymous office building owned by S.H.I.E.L.D., somewhere in Manhattan. Even today, after years of living on these streets, Ava would have trouble finding that building again. Her carers did make an effort. She got teachers that taught her English even though she retained an accent all her life, history, maths, the usual. Her room in 7B was comfortable, but barren. Bed, desk, picture on the wall. An anonymous landscape somewhere on planet Earth. She did get magazines to read and comic books, but she never felt these walls were hers to decorate. She rarely saw the light of day.
It wasn’t long before Ava had a plan: She would escape. But she was in the care of the world’s most advanced and sophisticated spy agency. Even at eleven years old, Ava knew that this was no easy task. She’d need to be smart about it. She couldn’t just walk out and be free. She’d need to disappear without a trace. «What would the Black Widow do?» became her mantra. She began stealing things. Little things, here and there. A flashlight suddenly vanished from the desk of the agent named Frank at the entrance. Ava knew that Frank wouldn’t miss it as he sometimes forgot it on the desk after his shift of staring down a mostly empty hallway ending in an armoured door ended. From what little she talked to him, she knew that his motivation was to get home to his dog, Buster, and drink a few cans of beer. «Some spy», she had thought in the beginning, before she realized that even S.H.I.E.L.D. was just made up of humans. With the exception of Thor, of course. And humans, she knew, were flawed. Even her big saviour – the beautiful and deadly Natasha Romanoff – had her flaws. She might know seven languages and ten ways to kill a person without getting up and how to use every gun under the sun, but she didn’t know how to care. She didn’t even care for her sestra.
As more items went missing, the agents got suspicious. They searched her room. «More a formality than anything. We’ve got orders and checklists», said one of the agents wearing a blue uniform not too different from a leotard. The search parties found nothing. Ava had outsmarted them by hiding all the items in her underwear drawer. Which adult S.H.I.E.L.D. agent would willingly dig through a twelve year-old’s underwear drawer? As silly as it sounds now, she thought that «that’s what Natasha would do.» So she went on stealing things. Lockpicks she found in the women’s locker room, holographic passports from the storage room down the hall. The combination to unlock the door on the number pad she had glanced as she walked to the TV room one day. 744353 – S.H.I.E.L.D.
Ava escaped S.H.I.E.L.D. custody 761 days after Natasha Romanoff got her a place to sleep in 7B. She didn’t know where she would go, but she had learned that she could not rely on her biggest hero. Even the good guys were just more people that wanted to keep her under lock and key.
And due to the story’s main plot device, a machine doing Quantum Entanglement – essentially exchanging memories between people -, she has all the powers The Black Widow has. Now, I can buy that she gets all the memory and all the tactics and all the languages Natasha Romanoff has in her head, but also all her fighting ability.
Anyone who has ever had any kind of martial arts training – even for a day – will know that you don’t learn martial arts by knowing them, or studying them. It takes practise, it takes physical training that a malnourished, homeless girl who does some fencing every now and then could never possess. So apart from being able to pull whatever’s needed from her pockets, she also has super elite skills.
After she’s saved the world practically on her own, managing only to get one character killed, Ava Orlova returns to S.H.I.E.L.D. and undergoes the mandatory training to be an employee of the spy agency. After a year of this, she’s up to Black Widow level of acrobatics and use of deadly weapons. This is complete nonsense.
Luckily, all Swiss male youths have to go to the army. Women may join, but men have to. So we know plenty of people who went and came back. One of them has spent 430 days of non-stop service. He has shot rifles, including one memorable week where they did nothing but target shooting because the bullet quota had to be met. «After a year, I was nowhere near combat ready», he says. Realistically, he says, a soldier is combat ready after two to three years at the very earliest.
Ava Orlova in the meantime does not have regular super powers. She can generate electrical pulses in her body, which is cool. It’s almost as if Black Widow‘s stingers were somehow integrated into Orlova‘s body. But that’s not enough. So apparently, without some kind of conduit device, the super power is useless. She has to have a gun in training to discharge it, just a regular gun, but she doesn’t like those. She prefers a fencing blade. Because, clearly, her super powers are extra special.
This extra special treatment extends to her uniform as well. Ms. Stohl, do you know why it is called a uniform? Because it is exactly the same. It is not a mix and match special outfit that a character may or may not customize as he or she sees fit.
Wikipedia describes military uniforms as follows:
Military uniforms in the form of standardised and distinctive dress, intended for identification and display, are typically a sign of organised military forces equipped by a central authority.
So for Ava Orlova to end up dyeing a fencing jacket black and wearing that instead of a standardized S.H.I.E.L.D. uniform is nothing short of an insult to the organisation that is S.H.I.E.L.D.. Sure, super heroes all have very distinct uniforms with their own identity somewhere in there, but that’s not because they’re so egomaniacal that they can’t abide by some dress code but because they’re not part of an organization or because – in the case of the X-Men – they have special needs. People who have earned their stripes, such as Nick Fury, get to wear whatever they want. Ava Orlova, having killed a civilian, stolen from S.H.I.E.L.D., escaped from custody twice, stole from shops, faked official documents and got countless people endangered by being in gunfights in public places. For all intents and purposes, Ava Orlova is a criminal.
But oh no, because Ava is a special snowflake, she gets away with all this, Natasha Romanoff, Phil Coulson and Tony Stark are her new best friends, her old, uncool friends are forgotten and she now has a tragic and dark past to go with it all, but she’s undoubtedly destined to do great things.
On the Right Path
Marvel has not done much wrong in the past few years. Sure, there’s a few comics that are bad and some editorial decisions I don’t agree with, but in general, the House of Ideas seems to know what they’re doing. Their foray into publishing books is – while not exactly new – commendable and should be kept up.
But, as they should know, you need talented writers and a skilled editor to write good books. Forever Red has made embarrassing mistakes that – if they had done that with a comic book or with their movies – would have brought them a lot more rants like the one you’ve just read that I have written.
Black Widow: Forever Red is the worst book I’ve read this year. It’s uncreative, unimaginative, shallow and contains not just factual mistakes but also typos. It’s glorified fanfiction at best and an insult to writing at worst. Don’t read it.