Black Widow — A.K.A. Natasha Romanoff — is definitely a huge part of the Avengers. Without super powers, she stands toe-to-toe with the best of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. We’ve seen her in numerous films starting with Iron Man 2 and then consistently in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but still we haven’t seen her in a stand-alone film…which is bound to happen soon. Until then, we have the action-driven Black Widow novel series, penned by famed Young Adult superstar Margaret Stohl, to fill our minds with well-paced action that is backed by thoughtful glimpses into Natasha’s past, motivations and fears. With Stohl’s newest novel, Black Widow: Red Vengeance, we find Natasha at her most vulnerable, and as such, her deadliest.
Before I continue-- this book is a sequel to Black Widow: Forever Red, so I was a little worried that I’d missed too much by not reading it. Stohl does a good job filling in lazy readers such as myself with the details. If you start reading and pick up on some points that seem new, don’t worry. All the blanks will be filled in for you as the story unfolds.
Natasha and Ava Orlova (i.e. Red Widow) kick off the novel in high action. Nat has checked young Ava out of the S.H.I.E.L.D. Academy in order to do recon for a mission that is dripping with vengeance. The events of Forever Red ripped someone away from Team Red (Natasha and Ava), someone very dear to them both. And with a mind towards revenge, they set out on a worldwide hunt for the new leader of the organization that was behind their loss.
Spy-craft, high-speed motorcycle chases, explosions, and even assassinations make up one of the most fun novels that I’ve read in some time. And this surprised me because this book falls comfortably into the category of Young Adult. Hyperion Teen published the title, and there are clues throughout the story that I was reading a teen novel. Angst, self-doubt, friend drama… even a paranormal love story — all indicators of the target audience. A device common to these teen novels, one that Stohl uses heavily in this books, is the “omniscient narrator.” She puts us right into the stream of thought of any character that is in control of the story. As far as doing good for the story, it truly helps to keep the reader’s attention focused on the moment.
Another way Stohl keeps the reader’s attention is by mixing up the timeline. The story begins at the end, shoots back into the past, and then is riddled with a post-novel debriefing of Romanoff by Agent Coulson. With these pull-out debriefings, as well as the omniscient narration, at all times the reader knows exactly what Ava or Natasha are thinking and why they are doing something. These devices serve two ends, as far as I can tell.
One, they help the reader to stay current with the story. If there is a place where the reader becomes lost, a course correction is soon to be found via the characters stream of thought or Natasha explaining her motives to Coulson back at S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters. Don’t let the YA label fool you, this story is full of plot and twists, so the explanations are helpful. At times they fill in the reader about some of the missing elements, plot points from the previous book, as well as to clarify different aspects of the story’s tech. (And the tech abounds!)
Second, and this is less than ideal, they don’t challenge the reader. In the past I’ve found myself reading novels in a speedy way, skipping from longer stretches of description over to blocks of dialogue. I do this with exciting novels in order to get to the action, the meat of the story, but in doing so I miss some of subtleties of the prose. In the case of italicized “thought prose” and the debriefings, I am reading that quickly, too, and then moving past the other parts, and that is a shame. For one thing, the prose is where the art of writing really pays off. The author weaves words into images and ideas to create a new world, or to expose the reader to a new way of thinking about the world. Those revelations are missed when a story relies too heavily on the omniscient narrator. Another cost is that the writer is telling us instead of showing us. The story loses some magic when everything is spelled out. This might be necessary for a young reader, and I get that, but describing a motive in full instead of hinting at its reason…that is where the true art of writing is nurtured.
Readers will be excited to find that despite the title characters, there are still plenty of non-Widow heroes to enjoy . Tony Stark and Carol Danvers appear as major players in the plot, as do Phil Coulson and Maria Hill. When Danvers shows up, I shouted “Right on!” She may be getting a movie before Romanoff, but I’m loving that Marvel Girl Power is growing.
So until we get those Black Widow and Captain Marvel standalones, go out and pick up these exciting novels. Black Widow: Red Vengeance is available at bookstores worldwide, starting at $17.99. Black Widow: Forever Red is also available in paperback wherever books are sold.