Title: The Serpent King (2016)
Author: Jeff Zentner
Publisher: Crown Books for Young Readers
Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary
Extent: 384 pages
Release Date: March 8, 2016
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.
I’ve seen this book around ages ago but never really planned to read it until I saw Marie’s review and knew, without a doubt, that I had to pick it up. A quiet, hopeful contemporary with distinct characters is right up my alley, so I got the book as soon as I could and started reading right then and there. Instantly, I was sucked into the story.
The Serpent King is about three best friends: Dill, the son of a very religious minister now in prison; Travis, a quiet boy who just wants to read his books; and Lydia, the most privileged of the three, a big-name fashion blogger and an only child of a relatively wealthy family. The story starts on the day before the first day of their last year in school and takes us through the following months.
“Nothing makes you feel more naked than someone identifying a desire you never knew you possessed.”
The pacing of this book is slow, but that fits its character-driven nature. Dill, Travis and Lydia are all very distinct and well-developed, with their own likes, dislikes, goals, fears, personalities and quirks. The dynamics between the three are incredibly realistic too — this is a friendship of real life, full of love, care and affection, yes, but also has brief moments of anger, bitterness, and resentment.
Set in the deep South, The Serpent King deals with many complex themes, a lot of which are centred around family. Dill has a very religious family, a dark history, and a father who is the leader of a snake-worshipping cult. Travis has a father who stops at nothing to put him down and a mother who enables her husband. Serving as a contrast, Lydia struggles with relating to her friends, having been born to two very loving, supportive parents.
“If you’re going to live, you might as well do painful, brave, and beautiful things.”
In the end, The Serpent King is about class differences, religion, life as the tragedy that it sometimes is, and it is about friendship, growing up, and living bravely. There’s a persistent sense of sadness that tinges pretty much every scene in this book, I think, and the overall result is a story that is bittersweet — it’s full of heart, and there are moments where you’ll find yourself chuckling along at the characters’ antics, but it also packs an emotional punch.