Author: Jeff Zentner
Find the author: Website, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram
Also by this author: Goodbye Days, Rayne & Delilah's Midnite Matinee
Publisher: Random House Children's Books
Publication date: March 8th 2016
Source: Finished copy from Penguin Random House Canada (thank you!)
“The Serpent King is a book you won’t be able to resist or forget. The Southern boy in me savored every syllable and the reader in me fell in love with every page.” —John Corey Whaley, National Book Award finalist and Printz Award winner
Dill has had to wrestle with vipers his whole life—at home, as the only son of a Pentecostal minister who urges him to handle poisonous rattlesnakes, and at school, where he faces down bullies who target him for his father’s extreme faith and very public fall from grace.
He and his fellow outcast friends must try to make it through their senior year of high school without letting the small-town culture destroy their creative spirits and sense of self. Graduation will lead to new beginnings for Lydia, whose edgy fashion blog is her ticket out of their rural Tennessee town. And Travis is content where he is thanks to his obsession with an epic book series and the fangirl turning his reality into real-life fantasy.
Their diverging paths could mean the end of their friendship. But not before Dill confronts his dark legacy to attempt to find a way into the light of a future worth living.
Review: The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner
The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner effervesces with the warmth and darkness of a small Southern Gothic town. Zentner creates an atmosphere that is both stiflingly oppressive and starkly beautiful – a landscape where both ramshackle homes and restored Victorians can coexist, where there’s dignity in both wanting to leave a small town and wanting to stay.
It’s the beginning of senior year, and our main characters, Lydia, Travis and Dill are best friends looking to the future. For Lydia, the future looks bright. She’s a popular fashion blogger with a massive following and opportunities seeking her in New York City, where she hopes to go to college next year. For Travis, the future looks like more of the same, making an honest living at the lumberyard and as a mechanic, while living most of his internal life lost in Bloodfall, a fantasy book series. For Dill, the future looks bleak, scraping by a living with his mother while trying to live down the legacy of his father, a disgraced, imprisoned local preacher of an extreme ministry who would convince his congregation to handle poisonous snakes to prove their faith in Christianity.
The characters leapt off the page at me. I loved Dill and Travis, but as a former fashion blogger, I saw so much of myself in Lydia. While I was never as successful as she is, so many of her thoughts throughout the novel were mine. Dill’s struggles against his very religious parents were more extreme than mine were, but nevertheless, that feeling of trying to figure out myself when everyone believes something else was foreordained for me, is something that resonated. And Travis’ online life and desire to live in his imagination is something that any book lover will identify with.
Throughout the early parts of the book, you get the feeling that this trio can survive anything, whether it’s crappy dads or bullying. All three, are, of course, outcasts at their school, bullied and made fun of. In some ways, their friendship is built upon the fact that like-needs-like; and there is no one else like them in town. But it goes deeper than that. Through descriptive flashbacks, we see how they became friends and just how much of a choice their friendship was…and how friendship can be life-saving and life-changing when it is built upon genuine care and not just common interest.
And then tragedy strikes. And between grief and loss and pain, things change and move.
I feel like I’m just babbling here, but honestly? There is no way I can put this book into words. It pulsates with feelings, it lives and breathes with fate-vs.-choice movement, bantery dialogue, and stunning description. If I have qualms, it’s that the occasional mix of these three sometimes felt jarring and not smooth. There was a touch too much telling in the writing style.
Nevertheless though, this book captivated me. The raw feeling, the real characters and the writing style had me crying and laughing, reading late into the night. This is a debut that will break your heart – and then remake it, but with shards left on the ground for you to stare at wordlessly.
Bantery Banter: Although all of the writing is beautiful, Zentner’s grasp of real teenage dialogue is some of the best I’ve ever read. The banter is smart, fast, and funny, and it’s the interactions of the three main characters, more than anything else, that made me believe in their friendship.
Parenthood: each teen’s parents are featured throughout the novel, and while most are pretty terrible (but in a way that was entirely believable), Lydia’s parents are THE BEST. Like, I want to hang out with them, because they are not only great parents but genuinely awesome people. I love seeing parents who are so supportive, but also real and aware of their kids shortcomings.
Fashion Blogging: Lydia is basically a mix of Tavi Gevinson of Style Rookie and Rookie Mag and Jane Aldridge of Sea of Shoes – she’s that popular, cool, and unafraid to cultivate a style and look that is a mix of high and low fashion pieces. I love that someone in YA is exploring this weirdo world that I was a part of for a very short time – and how we edit and create our image online.
Senior Year Choices: I mentioned this in my review, but I love how this book shows that there are options other than university, and while it doesn’t explore every option, it honestly portrays other options as possibilities.
Book Theme Song:
I don’t think Jeff Zentner wrote this book as a companion to his album “A Season Lost”, but since he had a pre-order campaign where you received a download of his album, I listened to it while I was reading. It has a similar stark and dark atmosphere to the novel and it just helped me visualize the landscape. I couldn’t pick one song off it, so just go listen and enjoy.
The Final Word:
I lost my heart to The Serpent King – it’s undoubtedly one of the best YA contemporaries I’ll read this year. Even though this is Dill, Lydia, and Travis’ book, it’s really Dill’s story. It’s his journey that we follow with the most heartbreak and desperation, and it’s his story that shows us, in alarming relief, just how hard it can be to break free of your circumstances, and how friendship and forgiveness can save and change a life.
THE SERPENT KING is out in bookstores now. Have you read it? If so, did you lose your heart to it as well? If you haven’t read it, what’s one thing about it that makes you interested in reading it?