So I heard many great things about this book, but I continued to push it aside for months. Yet I finished one audiobook and none of the ones I wanted to listen to were available, so I downloaded The Serpent King on a whim. Let me just say I was not prepared! I mean, I had to keep myself from crying while at work.
Title: The Serpent King
Author: Jeff Zentner
Publisher: Tundra Books (Penguin Random House)
Release date: March 8, 2016
Genre: Young adult, contemporary, realistic fiction
Length: 384 pages (U.S. hardcover)
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. The end of high school will lead to new beginnings for Lydia, whose edgy fashion blog is her ticket out of their rural Tennessee town. And Travis is happy wherever he is thanks to his obsession with the epic book series Bloodfall and the fangirl who may be turning his harsh reality into real-life fantasy. 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.”
At first, I wasn’t sure what to think about this book. It deals with some fairly heavy subject matter, so I want to be upfront about that. One of the characters has an verbally and physically abusive father who exudes the sort of toxic masculinity we see rampant in our culture today. I won’t go into too much detail because I don’t want to spoil anything, but I don’t think I can write this review without mentioning it.
Dill, one of the three main characters, has a broken relationship with his father and an awkward one with his mother. I disliked reading how twisted their faith was–not only in God, but how they also used their faith to try to manipulate their son. I am sickened not only reading about it, but also knowing that this form of the Christian faith is actually out there and alive! It blows my mind, but I absolutely loved how Dill stood up for himself. Not always and not in the way say, Lydia, wanted him to do. Dill’s a kid with a kind heart, though. He does generally care for his mother, even though he doesn’t agree with her. His budding feelings for a certain girl is also pretty heart-warming, and we really see the tension and struggle come head-to-head later in the book. It’s such an eye-opening experience because Dill feels incredibly tied down to where he is, the life he leads, and his past that he somehow can’t forget.
Then there’s Travis. Sweet Travis, I just wanted to squeeze him. He’s a book nerd, completely in love with a fantasy book series called Bloodfall (which I demand Zentner himself write because it sounds awesome). He has this cute online relationship and texting buddy. The relationship he has with his mother is adorable, and there’s a particular scene when his mom gives him a book that’s obviously a romance book, but the way she’s sincere really endears you to her and Travis, especially with the way his relationship is with his father: strained, awkward, and wishing you could simply ignore him.
Juxtapose the lives of Dill and Travis with that of Lydia, who runs a very famous blog and is also rather popular on Twitter and Instagram. Lydia doesn’t have much bad or wrong happening in her life. But she’s determined and a bit stubborn, and we see how she pushes Dill (I think she just tolerates Travis for a while), and tries to mold him into something she wants him to be. I like her character arc. Yes, Lydia lives a privileged life, but she tries her hardest to help people. I also really like her father, Dr. Blankenship. He stepped up in so many ways for Dill.
Zentner’s writing style and the audiobook’s narrators truly made this gripping and sometimes melancholy read. Some parts were hard to swallow; certain characters didn’t deserve their fate, but overall, I found myself very satisfied with the ending, which doesn’t happen often. And let me tell you, I tried to describe this book to my husband, who just looked at me funny and said, “That sounds awful.” LOL Well, he’ll never know the truth! Because this isn’t an awful book. It’s heartbreaking yet beautiful, and just the perfect slice of life, coming-of-age novel.