Panic is a game thought up in the small town of Carp, New York, about 4-5 years before. All graduating seniors are eligible to play (after having been coerced to provide a $1 a day into the pot for the entire senior year). This year's pot is $67,000 which could not only be life-changing, but could get someone out of Carp for good. The problem is, Panic is a dangerous game and there is a very real possibility that lives could be lost when the challenges include walking between two towers with no safety net, staying in an abandoned house overnight, and much, much worse.
To Heather, however, the challenges would be worth it if she can only win. Staying in the abusive, neglectful household of her mother with her younger sister is no longer an option, so she becomes determined to finish Panic.Along with her friend Natalie and Dodge, a boy out for revenge, Heather steels herself in order to try to make it to the final challenge--Joust, where the last two people drive at one another. The first to swerve loses.
There's so much going on in Panic and I won't try to do it justice by recounting all the stories. Despite being unsure if I even liked any of the characters for a while, I found I could not put this book down. The idea of a deadly game is not really out of the realm of possibility, even if I thought the adults were too clueless overall to be realistic. Surely if the game's been going on for so long, someone would have figured out how to put a stop to it; I really felt that even the police were overly dull, especially after some characters end up in the hospital. I also disliked the ease with which the characters used alcohol; maybe that works somewhere in real life, but it wasn't necessary to the story and could have been left out altogether.
When I first started reading, I felt sure this book would end up at maybe 3 stars because, as I've said, the characters aren't very likeable (and really don't ever get much better). It's just that the story swept along at a clip that kept me turning the pages. Oliver is a master at world-building but even better at plot building; as the story moves, layers are revealed and connections are made that pull the reader further and further under the wave. If this book has a dearth of people to cheer for, it more than makes up for it by having a thoroughly compelling storyline that just begs for the big screen treatment.