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.
The Serpent KingFeatured
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.
What worked: All of it! This novel is so much more than a coming of age tale. There's questions on regards to a faith that has been shaken by the choices of a Pastor father. Mostly though it's the courage to face up to what you want even if that goes against what others think.
Dill's plight really resonated with me. The whole, 'you are supposed to be there for your family' rang true. I know how hard it is to ignore what others expect of you and have the courage to say 'no'. This is especially hard in religious families especially those that expect you not to question a path that might not be right for you. Kuddos to Zentner for showing Dill's struggles, conflicts, and courage to face those who wanted to hold him back.
Travis's escaping into a fantasy book series is his way to have some kind of kindness in an abusive home. He's like a teddy bear--sweet and gentle. What he has to go through not only in his home but high school is heart breaking.
Lydia is the so-called 'rich' girl in town who doesn't care what the others think as she knows she'll leave it behind when she goes to college. But deep down she has her own yearnings and doubts. Her spunky, 'I don't care' attitude is peeled back to reveal what really hides behind her sarcastic persona.
Southern Freaks and Geeks meets The Perks of Being a Wallflower. This bittersweet coming of age tale will keep you glued to the pages as you follow the trials, sorrows, and triumphs of three friends in a small southern town. Keep some tissues close at hand. This story will stay with you long after you finish that last page.
2. Bittersweet coming of age tale
3. Authentic voice especially with character dealing with the aftermath of his Pastor father's crime