Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 1/2
It’s difficult for me to get my head into a book if it gets a lot of hype. And of course, it makes me even more nervous when I only hear good things about a book. This made me especially nervous to read Jeff Zentner’s debut young adult novel The Serpent King. A charming and hypnotizing story about a close-knit group of misfits on the brink of escape or stasis from their tiny Tennessee town. Dill, the publicly ostracized son of an imp serpent-handling Pentecostal preacher, spirals downward as he watches Lydia, an up-an-coming fashion blogger, and Travis, his fantasy game-loving best friend, prepare for a brighter future somewhere else or more of the same.
There is so much that I loved about this book, from the richly nuanced characters to the rich, beautiful setting to the twisty plot that made me laugh and cry (but let’s be honest, mostly cry). This is a book that truly lived up to my expectations and beyond. It was a book that I couldn’t put down, just had to finish once I got sucked into the fantastic world Zentner had built and the characters that populated it.
I’ll start with the characters, one of my favorite parts about the book. Dill was one of those most powerful characters I’ve ever met. Through the exquisitely written third-person prose that devotes chapters zeroing in on the three friends, Zentner paints a picture of a boy who is stuck and lost, but feels a great sense of weight and respobility for the missteps of his family. I found myself rooting for Dill, hoping he’d find peace and happiness, from the opening lines of this book.
Zentner depicts Dill’s friends with equal care and attention, the kind of specificity and nuance that a great writer achieves in his characters. Lydia, while not my favorite character in the beginning of the novel because she comes off as incredibly selfish, is a delightfully quirky girl I afraid to speak her mind. Travis is the kind of sensitive guy YA need more of and a proud nerd whose interests were clearly conveyed to the reader in a way that was entrancing.
But perhaps my favorite part about the cast of this novel was how present the parents were, and how they influenced the decisions each of these characters made throughout the story. First of all, I loved Lydia’s parents. Her dad, Dr. Blankenship, is the kind of dad I wish I had growing up and the kind of vital support system to the three teens that I wish every teen was lucky enough to have. Dill’s father is repulsive and sad as is his poor, devout and controlling mother whom Dill is constantly trying to care for. Meanwhile, Travis’ abusive, broken home and his angry dad were one of the more heartbreaking parts of the story. Although all different, the parents really helped drive the emotion in this story.
Equally impressive was the development of the setting. Zentner brings rural Tennessee to life and his descriptions are so vivid and haunting that they stayed with me long after I finished reading them. This book is a sensory experience, one that makes me eager for more stories with this power of observation.
In addition to its striking characters and spot-on setting, this book was also just a great story. Each scene leads into the next so wonderfully. This is a story that flows from beginning to end, filled with turns in the plot that left me in tears. Once I was hooked, I couldn’t stop reading. Engaging and smart, this is a book I wish I could read for the first time over and over and over.
Overall, this book is a gem full of southern charm, humor and high emotion. It’s a roller coaster of a tale that you’ll want to buckle up for, but you’ll know by the end that you’ve truly experienced something great.