The Serpent King
By Jeff Zentner
Paperback, 372 pages
Andersen Press, 2016
Dill’s snake-handling, priest father is in prison and he’s become a pariah at school, so he clings to the little moments he has with his two friends, Travis and Lydia. But their senior year of high school is starting and Lydia’s dreams of leaving their small town in Tennessee are making Dill realize how dark his life will become without her. Feeling trapped and left behind, the darkness from Dill’s past threatens to overwhelm him.
As part of my genre switch up challenge (I really need to come up with a more concise name for this damn thing – any suggestions?) I asked my friend Chels to recommend a YA contemporary with NO LOVE TRIANGLES (I don’t have time for that shit, bro) and this is what she sent me for Christmas. If there’s anyone I trust to recommend YA based on my stipulations, it’s her. This book did not disappoint!
I really had no clue what I was getting into and I came out of this book-loving two of the three main characters. Dill’s life is a hard one and he’s frustrated that Lydia is escaping their little town and moving on to better things, without him. He feels that he can’t leave home because of the massive debt he and his mother are left struggling to pay off while his father is in prison. He begins to resent Lydia’s opportunities and his semi-destructive attitude actually made me relate to him, rather than hate him. If I was his age in his position, the threat of losing a friend might have made me lash out as well. I also thought his struggle to find his own faith, rather than what his parents tried to force on him, was well-written and realistic. I also didn’t feel overwhelmed or ostracized whenever Dill thought about God (though his parents were the ‘religious nutjob’ type and could have been portrayed less stereotypically, but whatever).
Travis is the “gentle giant” type, who is also dealing with a rough home life. Unlike Dill, however, he doesn’t wish to leave town – he could be happy once out from underneath his domineering father’s thumb. He finds refuge in a popular fantasy series and the online forums where he holds detailed discussions with other book lovers because Lydia and Dill don’t read the series. I related to him too, at least in regards to finding an online community to talk about books to and writing fantasy novels in my head. Travis is the peacemaker and I found him very charming. He’s by far my favorite character – he seems simple at the start of the story but as the book continues there’s a lot of depth to his character.
Then there’s Lydia. She was my main issue with the story (along with some clunky dialog, which I’ll get to in a moment.) I found her dangerously close to Manic Pixie Dream Girl status, though not quite there. I find it hard to describe, but I disliked her attitude most of the time. I was also tired of constantly being reminded of how alternative she is. Throughout the book, we’re given little details about the music she listens to and the book she reads and the celebrities she admires so that we can remember how truly different and special and alternative she is compared to her classmates and even Dill and Travis. There are no little details and tidbits like this given for the boys, so it stood out more. I get it, she’s different. I don’t care. I did enjoy her drive and motivation, as she is a successful fashion/lifestyle blogger, as well as her confidence in the face of spiteful classmates.
My other main issue with the book is the sometimes clunky dialogue. It’s not all bad by any means, but there were moments where I was thinking that teens, and friends in general, don’t talk like that. I’ll just give one example because it’s the most glaring issue I found:
“[…] and get ready for my interview with Laydee.”
“You’re interviewing Laydee, the singer?” Dill asked.
“Wow. That’s awesome. She’s pretty much our age and her songs are all over the radio.”
Really? That’s the only way you could convey that Laydee is a young and popular singer? I think could easily write two or three variants of that conversation that would be less blatantly awkward.
Not a huge problem but that bit really had me laughing. There is also some romance in this story, but it was low key and natural enough that I didn’t mind. And I didn’t stipulate that there was to be no romance (I mean, is there even a YA book that exists with no romance?), just that there was no love triangle. I’m not griping about the romance here, it just didn’t interest me.
Now, for the most important part of this review:
THIS BOOK GAVE ME SUCH FEELS, YOU GUYS.
I was totally not expecting it! And not because this is a YA book (because most of them leave me only feeling disappointed or angry) but because I didn’t know there was an emotional element to this story. I was actually in public when the big scene hit me and I was SO UPSET and had to bottle it up because I couldn’t bring myself to sob in the corner of the waiting room of my local Mineke while my car was getting an oil change. UGH.
So I tweeted:
When ur terrible, horrible, no good, very bad friend @chelseadolling tells u to read a book that makes you wanna cry in public & u can’t!! 😢
Then I texted Chels (spoilers removed):
NO FUCKING WAY DID………………………….
I hate (love) you
If that’s not evidence enough that I have feelings, I don’t know what is. I did cry a little when I was safe at home, in my bed. But I’m mad that life and timing cheated me out of my initial urge to cry about this book.
Well, this review turned out longer than I thought it would. Clearly, I enjoyed this book. I’m so happy I asked Chels for a rec because I never would have picked up this book on my own. If you’re someone who’s not big on YA and you’re looking for a contemporary read about friendship, family, longing, loss, depression, and achieving your goals, definitely pick this up. If you’re like me and not big on the romance aspect, I think the relationship in this book is toned down enough that it doesn’t swallow the rest of the story whole. If you like romance, well, there is some!
Jeff’s site (with a brooding, very Dill-esque photo of himself on the main page)