A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
Readers who love spy novels and films will enjoy learning about the Panacea Group's secret headquarters (entered through a refrigerator door in a posh restaurant) and some of the specially designed high-tech items Winter and Sydney will use on their mission -- earrings embedded with the tiniest voice recorders in the world and a ring that's a recoding device and infrared camera.
Your past doesn't determine your future success or happiness.
Positive Role Models
As spies, Winter and Sydney are bold and courageous. But in their personal lives, both are working hard to put their pasts behind them and build a better future for themselves. Being an agent has given Sydney the chance to escape her traumatic childhood. She grew up in "two- bedroom shack of a place" with a father prone to drunken rages. After her dying mother made her promise to leave, she'd fled her home and found a new beginning with the Panacea Group. Winter is adored by millions of fans around the world but not too long ago, he was an awkward unpopular high school freshman. Despite his fame, he wonders if his mother sometimes forgets he exists or even loves him. And there are two questions, he isn't able to answer: Would he matter if he wasn't famous? And would becoming a better person finally make him happy?
Sydney is White and Winter is Chinese American. When Winter and his mother talk, they switch back and forth between English and Mandarin. Sydney finds his music "unconventional," as he uses Chinese drums with hip-hop. Winter's manager Claire is gay. His backup dancers and best friends are Dameon Carter, who's Black and gay, and Leonardo "Leo" Medina Santiago, who's introduced as "brown-skinned." Leo gave up an offer to attend attend Stanford to pursue a dream of being onstage. Panacea Group agent Sauda Nazari wears a hijab.
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Violence & Scariness
Violence or the threat of violence is ever present in the story. A man's death from poisoning is graphically described. People are stabbed, shot, shot at, threatened with knives, and violently kidnapped. A hit man murders a businessman and leaves behind nothing for the police to find but a neat row of limbs. There are fights involving guns, fists, and knives. A character remembers her father physically abusing her mother, while another knows her father murdered her mother in a rage.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
Winter and Sydney have an intimate moment that ends up being interrupted before it progresses to sex. "A faint groan emerged from his throat, a sound of relief and pleasure and deep want. It was the sexiest thing she'd ever heard …. As if from a distance, she sensed herself straddling him, her thighs pressed against his torso …" There's a mention of a brief and secret same-gender affair.
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Occasional strong language: "bastard," "s--t," "hell," "goddamn."
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Products & Purchases
Sydney always has a supply of Necco Wafers with her. Winter's favorite Shakespeare play is The Merchant of Venice and he's been on the covers of Rolling Stone, Vogue, and GQ.
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Sydney's father was an alcoholic, and one character is a known drug trafficker. Winter and his backup dancers celebrate with champagne after a concert. Adults drink at a party and Winter drinks whiskey at the birthday party in London, where the legal drinking age in 18.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that in Marie Lu's Stars and Smoke: A Stars and Smoke, Book 1, the world's most famous pop star becomes a spy. Nineteen-year-old Winter Young would seem to be a most unlikely undercover agent. After all, almost everyone in the world knows his face. But that's exactly what the covert ops organization known as the Panacea Group needs. He's so famous no one will ever suspect he's a spy. Panacea teams Winter up with one of its best agents, 19-year-old Sydney Cossette, aka The Jackal. Brilliant and brash, she'll be posing as his new bodyguard. Together, they'll undertake a dangerous mission to find evidence against a billionaire who's trafficking a deadly chemical weapon. Violence runs throughout the story as people are stabbed, shot, and murdered by hit men, and there's a vivid description of a man's death by poisoning. An intimate moment between Winter and Sydney is graphically described ("As if from a distance, she sensed herself straddling him, her thighs pressed against his torso …") but ends before they have sex. There's a mention of a brief and secret same-gender affair. Characters occasionally use profanity ("bastard," "s--t," "hell," and "goddamn"). Characters are Chinese American, White, Black, Latino, Muslim, and gay. Courage and teamwork are constant themes in the story.
Is It Any Good?
This engaging mix of romance, the world of pop stardom, and a dangerous undercover mission is anchored by two teen spies who are both brave and vulnerable. While Stars and Smoke delivers for readers wanting lots of action and adventure, teens looking for relatable characters will find them in the personal struggles of Winter and Sydney.
Did we miss something on diversity?
Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive portrayals in media. That's why we've added a new "Diverse Representations" section to our reviews that will be rolling out on an ongoing basis. You can help us help kids by suggesting a diversity update.