Panic is the perfect example of why you need to read a book before you make a judgement about it. When I picked this up from the shelf and read the blurb, my first thought was that it sounded pretty awesome; sort of like a real-life version of Dauntless initiation.
Oh boy was I wrong…
Panic is not a dystopia, nor is it even really very action orientated. What it is a contemporary romance dealing with a group of individuals with personal obstacles to overcome. It is about growing up. It is about facing your fears, whether they‘re physical or emotional. This book is essentially a coming of age story with a psychological slant to it, told against the backdrop of a small town’s legendary rite of passage, or – as I ended up thinking of it – a weird sort of fraternity hazing gone wrong.
First off, I want to start by saying that it was refreshing to read a YA standalone novel when the market seems to be dominated by trilogies and series at the moment. The writing style was pretty darn good, and without it the story would have been lacking something. Sections of both the dialogue and descriptive prose were great, and most of the character’s internal monologues about how they were feeling were solidly written.
The friendships in this book are wonderful. Not only that, but Oliver delivers a highly realistic portrayal: friendship is never perfect, and this book shows that so well. She depicts nicely the minor jealousies and difficulties between people who have been there for each other their entire lives, and delves into the complexities of friendship and how far loyalty can stretch. In addition to the platonic relationships, we get a glimpse at some varied examples of familial relationships too. I liked how family didn’t always have to mean a blood relation and how much characters matured with the help of those around them.
The romance was a little heavy-handed, but that’s to be expected in a contemporary novel where teenage hormones are raging. The key romances are actually realistic, not insta-lovey, and the growth of friendship into love is portrayed accurately, and with due care and attention given to the development of the characters as friends first, then gradually more and more as a couple. There are no unnecessary love triangles between the four main characters, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t relationship drama, it’s simply sourced from other more believable areas.
Panic took me quite a while to read because of the pace. Initially the pacing was alright, but the further through I progressed the more sporadic it became. Parts would be full of drama and then absolutely nothing would happen for whole chapters at a time. I think this could be down to the time scale, as the ‘game’ took place over the entire summer, leaving gaping lulls in the action that ruined any momentum the story might have built up. That’s not to say it was dull, but it wasn’t as entertaining as I thought it would be.
What I really did not get was the game itself. This loosely links to world-building, which was my biggest quarrel with this book. I mean how did Panic even start? Why would anyone in their right mind wake up one morning and think ‘you know what would be fun, let’s all jump off of tall rock formations and run through moving traffic for money!’ Did it really just stem from boredom? Because I will tell you now, I’ve been bored before, but never have I turned to a game of Russian roulette for an adrenaline high. And if everybody in the entire town (including the police, mind you!) know about it, why the hell is it still going on if there have been so many injuries and deaths? Do the parents just not give a crap? I have a mental image of the police spotting the dates and times painted on water towers every summer and thinking ‘sod it; we can deal with that next year’. There are just too many questions that you have to suspend your disbelief for. Aside from all of that, the plot twists (and I use the term very loosely) were too damn convenient and utterly predictable.
As you can probably tell, my complaints aren’t so much with the characters, more the story they are a part of. Towards the latter third of the book the game was utterly out of control, and I hated that I was still reading about a bunch of people actually wanting to carry on playing something so dangerous. Do I think Lauren Oliver had a good idea when she decided to explore what drives people to face their fears? Yes. Do I think she could have done so in about thirty pages less? Um, absolutely!
Not at all what I was expecting based on the blurb, and that threw me a lot. I’d say this one deserves two and a half stars. It could have been lower had Oliver’s writing style not been so good. Still, I think I only kind of liked this book. I had to constantly stop and decide whether or not I was enjoying it, whereas usually I just know one way or the other. Overall some decidedly mixed results.