Honestly, I need to level with all of you. I couldn’t talk about THE SERPENT KING by Jeff Zentner for a couple of days after I read it. When I tried, my throat closed up and my eyes welled with tears. All I could do was just implore people to “Just read it!” It is that good, y’all.
Forrestville is a super rural town in middle-of-nowhere Tennessee. With a population of just over 4,000 souls, everyone knows everyone’s business. Despite being somewhat stereotypical of a small southern town, I could put Forrestville in any state I’ve lived in. The people are small-minded, for the most part. Christ is Lord, and it’s the ONLY way to live. If you don’t follow what has been deemed the societal norm, you’re an outcast. And that’s where Dill and his friends come in. They are the outcasts, but they rely on each other to feel normal, even if they don’t realize it. Their true colors blossom to life when they truly need one another.
These characters, tho!! Oh my goodness, I love these kids. Travis and Dill would be content to just fade into the scenery, but Lydia pushes them to be themselves, and to find happiness. Dill is a musician and has the voice of an angel, but he’s never played outside his father’s church. Travis, though he looks the part of a lumberyard worker, is a gentle giant, donning a pewter dragon necklace and a wooden staff like the characters of his favorite fantasy series. Lydia is the outspoken, sharp-tongued daughter of the town dentist with a knack for finding jewels in vintage clothing shops. These characters could not be any more different if they tried. And they are the best things for each other. They are so real, I could almost reach into the pages and hug them.
The Serpent King follows each of our characters and alternates in their point of view, though it’s Dill’s emotional arc we follow. Each character has a distinct voice down to the grammar they use. As is common in some relationships, we see their true struggles in their own POV, the side of themselves they hide from other people. Even though they are close friends, fear of judgment and/or pity run deep.
Zentner masterfully deals in issues of anxiety, abuse, depression, and alienation with skill without coming off like some self-help soapbox. It’s very real and relatable. So relatable. Both Dill and Travis have a near-paralyzing fear of doing something new and outside the box. Seeing their struggles hit home for me, kid me and adult me. Dill’s battle with feeling as though he’s stuck and destined to live as his elders did haunted me throughout this book. He’s just a kid, but dealing with some very real grown-up issues because he’s forced to do so.
The pacing of The Serpent King never left me twiddling my thumbs, nor did it gloss over anything in order to get to the next big event. I will say chapter 28 almost annihilated my heart, so consider yourself warned. Remember when I said I couldn’t talk about THE SERPENT KING for a few days? Yup. Crushed like grape. I somewhat recovered by chapter 50.
I also have to say that I love, as in l-o-v-e, Jeff Zentner’s writing style. The way he incorporates the very essence of Tennessee into every setting is darn-near magical. As a former Californian, Zentner captures everything that I’ve come to love about living in Tennessee. From lazy summers by the river, watching trains, cicadas, kudzu, and the swampy haze of humidity that kisses you like an extra layer skin. I love it and I felt as though I was right there with Dill, Lydia, and Travis.
In fact, the only thing that even remotely felt off about THE SERPENT KING was Lydia’s relationship with her parents. They are truly loving and I adore that in YA literature, but Lydia came off a little too strong. Her parents are very progressive, sure, but if I’d spoken to my folks the way Lydia speaks to hers sometimes… Well, let’s just say I wouldn’t have been sitting down in the near future. I like that her parents treat her with a sense of equality, but it felt too much at times.
Anyway, THE SERPENT KING is a superb read for people who just love a great coming of age story about very real kids dealing with some very real crud. Jeff Zentner will make you laugh, he will make you cry (the uber ugly kind), cry some more (the uber happy kind), and he will leave you with a sense of power in how you can undoubtedly change the course of your life by allowing yourself to look in a different direction.