Before I start this review I just need to say that this is NOTHING like The Hunger Games (it’s actually got more in common with Divergent’s Dauntless initiation) and I HIGHLY doubt there will be a sequel as it is a self-contained story, and anyway the game can only be played by that year’s graduates and now all the characters have graduated. This is NOT a dystopian, it’s a gritty realistic contemporary new adult novel.
The comparison to Divergent’s Dauntless initiation in favour of any comparison to The Hunger Games is because each entrant chooses to compete and then has to face a series of tests designed to frighten them. There’s no killing other entrants (although some have been known to die) or even having to fight them: it’s basically a battle against one’s own fears to see who has the biggest ‘balls’ (so to say). It’s set in the real world. It’s terribly unfortunate for this book to be getting so many Hunger Games comparisons from its blurb alone because it’s really got absolutely nothing in common with that book.
So basically, stop panicking. Ha!
Dodge, Heather, and Heather’s BFF Nat enter Panic, a secret illegal game with a massive payout available to anyone from their graduating year. The challenge of Panic is to basically NOT panic through the challenges, which are varied and differ from year to year and include group challenges (breaking into the house of a trigger-happy rifle owner and stealing something) and personal challenges (spiders, anyone? Russian roulette?) If you pass you move on to the next challenge. There can only be one winner. The judges are secret and anyone breaking the rules will be beaten to a bloody pulp.
The two main characters (Heather and Dodge) have their own reasons for entering Panic, which this year has the biggest prize money payout ever. We see the book from their third person limited point of view, although the narrative does sometimes drift into omniscient to describe things happening that the characters can’t know about. Overall the narration really works for this novel and even though I’m not a huge fan of third person (I was initially disappointed when I started reading), I grew to love it. I really grew to care about Heather – not so much Dodge, whose motivation for entering Panic just didn’t gel with me – because she was hardworking, honest, and a really average, down-to-earth girl. She had a pretty terrible home life that she wanted to escape, but she was a responsible older sister as well. I liked her character arc and even her emotional angst as she slowly came to realise what love was and matured over the summer. I did really love Dodge’s POV as well, because he just sounded so damn authentic. Oliver’s writing is so great that I felt completely sucked in and could really reflect Heather’s emotions, especially during one of her later challenges.
The book takes place over the summer after graduation so most of the entrants are eighteen. With the angst that everyone was experiencing by being from a small town and wanting more, wanting to escape and go to far away colleges or finding work to get them out of this hole of a town, I’d definitely classify this a New Adult. I found this fascinating in Before I Fall as well, the fact that in this small town everyone has gone to the same school and you’ve known and been friends with everyone since childhood. Even though I grew up in the same place in regional Australia, I still changed schools and therefore friendship groups as I got older – my primary school wasn’t a feeder to my high school, and I took classes in college (grades 11 and 12 and sometimes 13 for those Americans reading this) that forced me into different social circles, so I was making new friends all the time. It’s hard for me to imagine keeping a bunch of friends from childhood into my early adulthood.
There are several similarities to Before I Fall beyond that: Heather and Samantha are both the same age. They both have a younger sister at least five years younger than them, to whom they feel responsible. And the romance is built with someone who is initially thought of as just a friend, but whom the girls have known their whole lives.
Overall Panic was a really satisfying novel. It leapt into the story right away dropping hints about backstory, and the whole culture set up around this dangerous game was really interesting. I would definitely recommend it to fans of Lauren Oliver and yes, I’d even recommend it to fans of The Hunger Games in the understanding that it’s nothing like that young adult dystopian. I’d also recommend it to people who are looking for something different to abusive ‘romances’ in the New Adult genre, and I’d recommend it as generally a really fantastic gritty contemporary novel.
Thanks to Hachette Australia/Hodder & Stoughton and Netgalley for providing this advanced reader copy for an honest review.