The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner
Published: March 2016 by Andersen Press Ltd.
Genre: Realistic Fiction, Young Adult
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥
Synopsis from Goodreads: 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.
The only antidote to all this venom is his friendship with fellow outcasts Travis and Lydia. But as they are starting their senior year, Dill feels the coils of his future tightening around him. Dill’s only escapes are his music and his secret feelings for Lydia, neither of which he is brave enough to share. Graduation feels more like an ending to Dill than a beginning. But even before then, he must cope with another ending – one that will rock his life to the core.
Review: This was another book club read, (so far all two of my 2017 reads have been book club ones…) and again another one I would never have picked myself. The blurb is an odd one and the title didn’t give anything away either so I wasn’t hugely interested going into this book and had no idea what to expect.
One of the things that came of the book club discussion was that the pacing was a little off. The first 2/3 of the book didn’t have any discernible plot and we essentially just followed the characters as they went about their lives with little variation. It is the last third of the book that the pace picks up and the writing and character development gets really interesting. We all agreed that it would’ve been much better had the book started with the climax because what follows was infinitely more fascinating.
And most of all, there was the crushing weight of destiny. The ossifying conviction that he was living out some ancient and preordained plan… Something horrible and inevitable.
The setting is rather unique and I think it was this aspect of the book that kept me turning the pages. There are quite a few Americans in my book group and it was interesting to hear that in their opinion Zentner’s portrayal of the ‘rural’ American Deep South was quite accurate. He deftly handles the spectrum of religion and political attitudes in a way that makes racism and class disparity not the focal point – instead they’re in the background, quietly influencing the way characters behave. I thought this was such a brilliant and subtle way to highlight issues without making the book and characters the sum of their views or into caricatures.
He didn’t think Lydia would understand because her family was so awesome. And he didn’t think Dill would understand because his family was so awful.
Moving onto the characters, I must admit that I didn’t really connect to Dill or Lydia, even though I could sympathise with some of their dilemmas. I was totally cheering on Lydia when Dill was accusing her of deserting him – even though you can understand where his fear is coming from, there is no justification for him to take it out on Lydia. But on the other hand, I found Lydia rather naive when it came to her rose-tinted view of her new life in the big city which irked me somewhat. Travis on the other hand did make an impression on me. He was quietly optimistic at the bleakest of times and found happiness in the simplest of things like books and being a fanboy online – I guess I could relate!
They’re amazing. I forget about everything I’m not good at and everyone I’m not when I read them. They make me feel brave.
One of the things that struck me about The Serpent King was the all-pervasive bleakness. This is not an airy fairy read by any means and I wasn’t expecting sunshine and unicorns, but at points the grim reality that some of these characters exist in was pretty overwhelming. The Serpent King to me was about the resilience of the human spirit after it’s been through hell and, even though Dill’s experience is on the more extreme end of the scale, I saw it as a great message to keep going even when it feels totally fruitless.
Times are simpler when no one hates you because of your name and it doesn’t occur to you to be ashamed of it.
On a lighter note, I’m going to acknowledge something which I think is wholly underrepresented in YA: responsible and present parenting. Lydia’s relationship with her parents, especially her father, was beautifully portrayed. He was her advocate and supporter, giving her the best in life, whilst also taking pains to make her aware of her privilege in comparison to her friends. I for one would like to see more healthy parent-child relationships in YA – especially ones that are feel genuine like Zentner has written.
You’re destined for great things, Lydia. That comes at a price. Everybody wants to be close to greatness and get a piece for themselves… You have two friends right now who may not be glamorous, but they love you for you.
The Serpent King was an interesting read but not for the plot itself. Instead, I found its merits lay elsewhere like in the authentic setting Zentner has created and some of the characters and relationships he has written. A good read if you’re after something that is a little different to the conventional YA novel.
Have you read The Serpent King? Or do have any recommendations in a similar setting or dealing with similar issues? Let me know in the comments below!!