Wednesday, May 29, 2024

#Review - Icon and Inferno by Marie Lu #YA #Thriller #Suspense #Espionage

Series: A Stars and Smoke Novel (#2)
Format: Hardcover, 320 pages
Release Date: June 11, 2024
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press
Source: Publisher
Genre: Young Adult / Thrillers & Suspense / Espionage

 New sparks. Old Flames. And a mission that's playing with fire.

A year has passed since superstar Winter Young last saw secret agent Sydney Cossette. After barely surviving their first assignment together in London -- and their intense chemistry – the two haven’t spoken at all. Though they’re never far from the other’s thoughts, or fantasies.

So when Sydney shows up at Winter’s studio one day with a new mission from Panacea, he has no choice but to accept. With the clock ticking, the duo prepares to head to Singapore to rescue an operative in danger -- only to learn he’s none other than Sydney's ex, a rogue agent known as the Arsonist.

Of course, nothing is ever simple when it comes to Winter and Sydney. Especially not with the glamorous Gavi Ginsburg, a globe-trotting socialite and Winter’s one-time girlfriend, in the mix. Is she back for Winter’s heart – or does she have her eye on another prize?

The smoldering sequel to New York Times bestselling Stars and Smoke follows Winter and Sydney on yet another treacherous mission that grows more sinister with each twist and turn. To make it out alive, they'll have to figure out how to be partners again -- and if they can resist the burn of something more.

Icon and Inferno is the second installment in author Marie Lu's Stars and Smoke series. This book is set one year from the end of the first installment. The book alternates between superstar Winter Young, and Sydney Cossette, an operative who works for the Panacea Group. Winter (who is in Hawaii when he learns of a tell all book that is set to be released) and Sydney (who is now a full operative) haven't stopped thinking about each other even though they haven't been in contact since then. 

That changes when Panacea asks them to team up on another mission, once again using the cover of Winter's concert. It seems one of their agents has been missing for 2 weeks, and there's the possibility that he's been compromised. In order to make things twisted, Sydney learns that the missing agent is Tems, a rogue agent named the Arsonist who just happens to be her ex. Thanks to a past incident, Tems isn't exactly on Syd's Christmas list. Meanwhile, Winter is forced to ask the glamorous Gavi Ginsburg, a globe-trotting socialite and Winter’s one-time girlfriend, to be by his side for the duration of the mission. 

Syd & Winter's mission sends them to Singapore, and the guest appearance by one Emika Chen, who is now CEO of Henka Games who made her claim to fame in the Warcross games. While in Singapore, Syd and Winter learn of a threat to the US President by rogue actors. Syd soon finds that she is also under attack by an undetermined group of agents, as well as her employer. The author turns up the volume to 11 by having a very important character killed off in what appears to have been intentional. And when a murder accusation has Sydney on the run, suddenly it's not just a life at stake, but all-out war.

*Thoughts* The ending of this book leaves much to be desired. It seems that this was meant as a duology, but there's always the possibility of a return. Also, why bring back Emika if you weren't going to use here and Hideo in another story? This book is filled with action, suspense, romance, songs that weren't supposed to be played in public, betrayal, heart break, and maybe a bit of hope that the author will continue with the Syd and Winter trials and tribulations. 

1All Love Bears a Cost

Honolulu, Oahu Hawaii

The forecast had called, as it often did in Honolulu, for scattered showers. But by midafternoon, luck had pushed the warm rains further up the island of Oahu, and instead the skies over Waikiki Beach were dappled with cotton clouds against the late summer blue. The winds were gentle and humid, the ocean changing colors under the shifting sunshine like a mercurial gemstone, from deep jade to a turquoise so searing that the water looked artificial.

It was the perfect day for the interview of the year, and the crowd that had gathered around the stage set up on the sand was frantic. Now and then, excited cheers pulsed through them, like ripples that originated with the boy seated at the center of the stage, his figure shaded under a translucent white canopy, one of his legs crossed casually over the other.

He was dressed in a pale collared shirt and shorts, and smelled like sunscreen, citrus, and salt wind. His hair was thick and messy, so pitch-black that it shone blue under the sun, and his eyes, dark and slender behind a pair of aviators, currently expressed a mixture of politeness and discomfort as he stared at his interviewer.

Winter Young, the most famous superstar in the world, had only agreed to this interview for the sake of his manager, Claire, who’d had to deal with star reporter Evelyn Dace for a year as she tried to nab Winter for a proper interview.

Now the reporter leaned forward from the chair opposite Winter, her green eyes fixed so intently on him that he felt like she could see into his very marrow. He kept his face calm, his own gaze steady and unwavering, a quiet challenge in return.

“Tell me,” Evelyn began in a gentle yet patronizing tone. “Are you currently dating anyone?”

Claire had, as usual, given her a list of approved questions in addition to topics they were to avoid at all costs, but Evelyn had strayed from the list early on—first a pointed comment about Winter’s diet (he didn’t have one), then an off-the-cuff remark about his close relationships with his backup dancers. Now this. Winter could feel the heat rising at his collar, but he couldn’t give her the satisfaction of a response.

So instead, he offered Evelyn a demure, practiced smile and pushed the sleeves of his shirt higher, exposing more of the tattoos decorating his forearms. “Not right now,” he said. “I’ve been too busy with the new album to date.”

Instead of taking his hint to steer the conversation back to the album, the reporter just looked down at her notes slyly, as if she knew there was more Winter wasn’t letting on. “Come now, Winter. You’ve been dropping hints in all your new tracks.”

He shrugged. “Every artist is inspired by life. And love is one of life’s greatest inspirations,” he said, and scattered shrieks came from the crowd.

Evelyn smiled at that, nodding at the career highlights reel playing on the screen behind them. Winter watched the footage of himself as a fourteen-year-old boy, long and lanky like an unsteady colt, newly famous and petrified of crowds, stepping out onto the stage of an arena for the first time.

Sometimes he forgot how young he was when he began this wild journey. Years later, he still found it strange to look back.

“This is my very first concert,” the past version of himself said shyly in the video, offering the crowd his famous, secret smile. And the audience went wild.

Winter glanced away from the screen and back at Evelyn, who had crossed her arms. “Some people say that you’ve reached a renaissance in your work,” she said. “Bolder melodies and complex lyrics hinting at new secrets.”

“Are you some people?”

“Sure. Let’s say I am.”

He took the opportunity to steer the topic back to his album. “Then thank you,” he replied. “There are a lot of tracks I’m excited to share. I hope others can relate—”

The reporter interrupted him. “It seems fairly obvious your growth isn’t just random. You really expect us to believe you don’t have some new passion—new love—inspiring you?” She was not letting him go easily. “What really changed—or better yet, who changed you?”

Sydney Cossette.

Her name sprang unbidden to Winter’s mind, and he had to force himself to keep his expression neutral.

Sometimes Winter forgot that, for a month, he had been an actual secret agent.

Sometimes, what happened last year—that he’d been recruited to work undercover for an intelligence agency called the Panacea Group to help take down a billionaire tycoon—still seemed like a fever dream. Sometimes he forgot that the girl who’d posed as his bodyguard back then was really a secret agent assigned to be his partner.

Sydney Cossette.

If only they’d given in to being so much more.

They’d hated each other at first, and then they’d become allies. And then … well, they’d had a moment with each other that went beyond friendship. And now it didn’t matter, because they’d probably never see each other again.

His thoughts about her had been hourly for the first few weeks after he left London to recuperate fully at home, sometimes so overpowering that he could barely bring himself to get out of bed. But now they had faded to something manageable, the image of her small, fierce face framed with blond hair pushed inevitably aside for the crowd of concerts and parties and banquets and galas and interviews that all came back with regular force once he returned to his work.

Sometimes he forgot entirely, and that strange world felt so distant that he wondered if perhaps he had imagined the whole thing.

But sometimes he would walk past a cobblestone street or a quiet, hedged garden. Sometimes he would see an elegant bridge or a particular frame of airplane. Sometimes he would see a messy blond bob in the crowd. And those thoughts would return to his mind.

She would return.

He coped the only way he knew how: by writing. For the past half year, he’d written music like a boy possessed, gotten out some of the best songs of his life, filled an entire stack of little notebooks that sat teetering on his work desk at home. It felt like a guiding light had switched on in his mind, and all he had to do was follow it and the notes would come pouring out of him.

He snapped back to the present, waving at the crowd by way of answering the reporter’s question. Cheers momentarily drowned out anything and everything.

He smiled at them again before turning back to the reporter. “I’ve just been grateful lately,” he said. “Any romance in my new lyrics is inspired by that, by gratitude for what my fans have given me. That’s it.”

Evelyn’s jaw tightened slightly, a flicker of annoyance crossing her face. Winter’s eyes darted for a moment to Claire, who was standing at the edge of the stage with her arms crossed, her lips flattened into a line. Their eyes met, and she gave him a near-imperceptible shake of her head.

Hang in there, she seemed to say. Time’s almost up.

“That’s a lovely statement,” Evelyn said, her gentle smile so professional that it grated on Winter’s nerves. “There’s been a real sense of joy in your recent music, nevertheless. Perhaps you’ve been able to put aside some of the tragedies in your past. Would you say that’s true?”

Winter stiffened, holding back a sigh of frustration. She was really going there. “What do you mean?” he said.

“Tell me about your brother,” she said. “It’s common knowledge that his death has always loomed large in your life, yes?”


Off in the corner, Winter could hear the unmistakable hiss of Claire taking a sharp breath. He didn’t need to look at her to know she was furious at this question.

“Yes,” he answered curtly. “Of course.”

“Have you found a way to move on from that loss?”

Had he? For a moment, Winter imagined that he wasn’t sitting in this interminable interview, but wandering along the edge of the ocean in Santa Monica beside his older brother, twelve years apart in age, fathered by different men but united by the same mother.

Look, Artie had said on that misty morning. An unbroken shell.

He leaned down to pick up a pristine, pink-tinted clamshell, then washed it in the tide before handing it to Winter. Toss it back in the ocean and make a wish, he’d said.

Is that a thing? Winter had replied.

Artie had laughed and mussed up Winter’s hair. You can make it a thing.

So Winter had tossed it into the sea and wished to be famous, to be loved by his mother, to be remembered by somebody.

He should have wished instead for Artie to stay alive.

The memory faded. “You don’t ever move on from a death,” Winter answered calmly. “You just find better ways of coping.”

“You’ve managed to replace the grief in your past with love, then.”

“Grief is love. It’s the price we pay for the gift of someone meaningful in our lives.” They should be nearly at the hour mark. Almost done.

The reporter seemed to hear something in her earpiece. She paused, listening.

Then her eyes darted to Winter, and a look of what Winter could only describe as gleeful anticipation came across her face. She nodded. “Now, my sources say that a major publisher has just announced a tell-all book about you, to be released in the fall of this year. Any comment?”

Winter’s polite smile faltered at the same time the crowd let out a chorus of confused murmurs, then gasps. He must have heard her wrong. Behind Evelyn, he saw Claire staring down at her phone with an expression of growing horror. The news must have broken right in the middle of his interview.

Evelyn seemed to catch the crack in his fa├žade, because a gleam came into her eyes. “This is a surprise to you, I see.”

A tell-all. Who would write an unauthorized tell-all about him?

Say something, he told himself harshly. “That rumor’s new to me,” he answered out loud.

She nodded with false sympathy and leaned toward him, her guise of concern still on her face. “I’m sorry to catch you off guard, as I thought you were already aware of it. No one has announced the author of the book yet. Perhaps you know?”

“I don’t,” he heard himself say stiffly, but the words sounded like they came from someone else. His eyes darted to Claire, who was now arguing with one of the producers. When the man shook his head at her, a look of fury crossed her face.

“Could it be someone you know well? A family member?” the reporter pressed.

“I don’t know,” Winter repeated.

“Winter,” the woman said in a gentle, coaxing voice. “Tell me about your mother.”

His mother?

“Are you implying that she wrote this?” he said.

“Absolutely not.” Evelyn lifted her hands in innocence. “But the nature of the book feels like an inside source. Perhaps someone close, familial. I’ve heard you’ve had a rather contentious relationship with your mother. Is that true?”

“I’m not going to answer that,” he said, his voice tight. “And nothing anyone has to say in a book about me will be a surprise to the public.”

But Evelyn’s words had already planted seeds of doubt in his mind. Could it be his mother? Had some company called her, talked her into doing it? Had she neglected to tell him? She had done unauthorized magazine interviews that had approached her, had once given away one of his school notebooks for an auction without telling him, the contents of which were then spread everywhere online. The thought was too much to handle, at least in a setting like this, with thousands of eyes fixed on him and the shine of a Hawaiian afternoon suddenly much too warm.

He needed to get off this stage. He needed to escape.

The reporter’s sweet, sympathetic expression soured to a grimace. “You once considered ending your career early in your first year in order to take care of your mother while she suffered a mental health crisis. Isn’t that right?”

At that, Winter snapped. He moved as if through a dream, suddenly rising from his chair and stripping the microphone from his collar, yanking the device’s wire out of his clothes. The clip fell from his side and onto the wooden stage with a hollow clank.

Down in the sand at the side of the stage, Claire nodded at him and made a circular motion with her finger.

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