I’ve wanted to read this author for quite a while, and it turned out this standalone YA novel was a great place to start. This book has been dubbed a rip-off of The Hunger Games in its plotline, but I really can’t see why – the two are completely different. Whilst this novel does involve a group of teenagers taking part in a high-stakes game, it felt much more like a YA contemporary read, straddling genres of thriller, drama and coming-of-age.
Panic is the name of the novel and the name of the game here – a legendary game created by a group of students in a small town with nothing better to do. Each year, the game has grown in terms of risk and stakes, and this year the jackpot stands at $67,000 for one lucky winner. But to be in with a chance of winning, the group of teens must take part in a series of challenges designed to push them to their limits, and put their lives at risk.
The book is told through alternating viewpoints; Heather and Dodge. Heather enters the competition on whim after she discovers her boyfriend cheating on her, whereas Dodge is playing a calculated game to win with revenge on his mind. As the game starts out, things seem innocent enough with the entire school turning out to watch ‘the jump’ on the first day of summer. But as the season progresses, the crowds slip away and the challenges become more dangerous and more deadly.
There’s a lot of action in this book, and Oliver skillfully builds tension creating heart-in-your-mouth moments, from a night spent in a haunted house which ends in tragedy, to an epic showdown with a pair of tigers. But the author also spends plenty of time building the scene and the characters. The atmosphere of the stifling small town where everyone knows everyone and the social divisions are clearly marked feels realistic and well-depicted. The characters also felt three-dimensional; they’re not just players in a game but real teenagers with real issues, and Oliver takes the time to explore their complicated home lives and their relationships with each other along the way. But as the game progresses, it begins to encroach on every aspect of their lives, leading up the the dramatic finale. This really was a great little YA novel, with a smattering of drama, action, crime and romance all rolled into a well-rounded, clever story.