Another wonderful book from Marie Lu!

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Stars and Smoke is an absolute whirlwind of an adventure! I’ve always loved Marie Lu’s innovative concepts and Stars and Smoke is no exception. Lu does an exceptional job fusing multiple genres (spy thriller, action-adventure, bodyguard romance) to create a breath of fresh air in the upper-YA cannon, a space I’ve begun to feel is demanding increasingly unique concepts amidst the threat of over-saturation. The writing style is very fluid and streamlined, making the book wildly bingeable and the entire reading experience very exciting; this entire book read very much like a cinematic spy movie à-la Mission: Impossible.

Marie Lu’s characters and their relationships have always been her strength and Winter and Sydney are no exception. Their chemistry was palpable, but Lu did a great job of developing their emotional bond following their initial physical attraction. Their romance was well-paced and developed naturally, especially as they learned to trust and open up to each other. Lu deftly handles both MC’s traumas, providing nuance I rarely see given genre conventions. I was glad to see the way she subverts traditional family troubles and childhood trauma—Lu sheds some much-needed light on Sydney’s kleptomania, a disorder I haven’t seen represented very well in YA fiction. Similarly, I appreciated the way she handled Winter’s grief over his brother and his complicated relationship with his mother—she makes a wonderful choice to never villainize his mother despite hinting at her emotional manipulation of Winter. I also really enjoyed the supporting cast and their easy diversity, especially the relationship between Sauda and Niall. None of the characters fall into archetypes even though it’s easy to since spy thrillers are choked with them. The casual inclusion of Winter’s bi/pansexuality was very refreshing, though I was left wondering a bit about his past relationship with Dameon. Hopefully the next book(s) in the serial provide more insight.

The only thing preventing me from giving this book a full 5 stars is the third act. The pacing was good for a majority of the story, but the third act and denouement felt a bit rushed, especially once the hidden antagonist’s identity crystallized. The final battle was well-paced as the emotional arcs climaxed, but the fallout and resolution fell slightly short of my expectations. Everything wrapped up a bit too nicely, including how easily the ramifications that came from Sydney and Winter’s mission concluded. I did, however, appreciate that Lu chose to conclude the book the way she did, hinting at further adventures while maintaining the feeling of a standalone.

Overall, Stars and Smoke was a fantastic escapist read. Marie Lu continues to reach new heights, and I’m looking forward to reading more about Winter and Sydney’s adventures!

Thank you to NetGalley and Roaring Brook Press (Macmillan Children’s) for the e-ARC!

4.5/5 stars