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★ 3.5 / 5

Ever since Rebel I've had a weird disconnect with Marie Lu's books. I've been reading her work since Legend released, so she's been an insta-buy author for quite a long time. But something happened between Kingdom of Back all the way to Steelstriker when it comes to my enjoyment of her books. The characters felt flatter and less alive. The books were much more serious than most of her previous work too, but I did not love them anywhere near as much as The Young Elites, Legend, or Warcross.

But Stars and Smoke brought me back to that previous feeling. I'm not the biggest thriller/ spy fan, but I'll try anything by Marie Lu. S&S reminded me of my reading experience with Warcross and Wildcard because the world is extremely similar to our own with just a couple key differences. I was laughing and shaking my head smiling during multiple scenes, and don't even get me started on the flirty scenes between our two leads. These moments were what I've been missing from Marie!

Now the genre itself was my biggest issue because I don't hardly ever read books like S&S. I'm not a huge celebrity/ pop star fan either, so I was not the target audience. I think fans of BTS, Taylor Swift, or other big singers would love this book because it leans a lot into fan culture and the expectations that come with it for the celebrity. But I typically don't read books like this, and the only reason I did this time is because Marie wrote it. Moreover, the book felt extremely fast-paced and short. The spy elements were extremely fascinating, but it felt as if we never got to see Sydney fully in her element. We bypassed a ton of possibly badass scenes, and I wanted more details. One of the scenes that made me feel adrenaline and the high stakes was when Sydney follows Eli after his daughter's party/birthday celebration. The motorcycle imagery and Sydney spying on the tension between the villains were just TOP TIER. I wanted more like that. Obviously, Winter is going to be a novice at spying, so I wasn't thrown off by his lack of action, but I was craving more.

Marie Lu is a representation queen. She's always been one of the best authors at writing characters for everyone. Talin was deaf. Day/ June are both mixed race (something not common in books via early 2010s), and LGBTQ+ identities are all around. S&S was no different, but specifically for this book I loved that Sydney had a lung health condition. When more intense health issues arise, I find no representation whatsoever in books. The fact that Sydney has breathing problems but continues to work in an active, dangerous work environment was great. Sydney shows the nuances of health issues in that she doesn't have to give up her career, but she does alter her life a bit with breathing exercises or "work smarter, not harder" mentality. It was refreshing because I don't think many people would connect spy work to someone with a health condition, but Marie proves again that you, the individual, decide your destiny/ career, not someone else.

Overall, S&S was a step in the right direction for me. I will definitely read the sequel to see what other spy shenanigans the duo encounter, and I'm hopeful for the future of Marie's books.

Thank you NetGalley and Fierce Reads for the chance to review this title early. All thoughts and opinions are my own.