The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner Review

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“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.”

After reading the fantastic Goodbye Days, I decided to go back and read Zentner’s debut, The Serpent King. While I believe the former to be the better novel, The Serpent King presents an emotional and brutal coming of age novel.

I felt all three of the main characters to be quite well done, but I did not connect with one of them as much as I had hoped. Of the three, Dill gets the majority of attention and I found his character arc to be the best of the three. Travis had his own charm and it was awesome to see someone embrace their quirky nature amidst his hostile household. I do wish he had appeared more in the book, but his character arc was nicely done and provides some of the most brutal moments in the book. Lydia felt a bit off and I can’t really put my finger on it. Don’t get me wrong, I still liked her character and she had her moments, but I just couldn’t connect with her. Maybe it was because her character arc felt a bit underdeveloped and the payoff to be sudden or maybe it was because she felt a bit like a plot device or to cause drama. The supporting characters consist mainly of the kids’ parents and were really only there when the plot called for them (except for Mr. Blankenship who provided a nice contrast to the dark portrayal of the other parents). The overly religious family and the father who hates his son for being different have been done before, but I do respect Zentner for portraying them in such a more visceral and unhinged way that I could not help but feel uncomfortable.

The plot was a bit predictable especially with the bleak nature of the book, but much of the emotional moments felt organic just like Goodbye Days. Be warned, I found this book to be quite bleak and even depressing compared to Goodbye Days which had just a bit more hopeful vibe throughout the book which at times can become too much. While I do believe there are people in the world that got through those experiences, the common occurrence of it in the novel sort of saturated it for me making each one punch just a bit less than the last one. Nonetheless, the emotional moments still hit hard and felt organic. I still could not believe just how some of these parents treated their kids and unfortunately, there are people who do this to their children. I am not a religious guy. I do believe in God and I do read the bible. I believe we do have a sort of path in our lives, but we are still free to make our own choices. But sometimes faith is not enough, sometimes you have to do it yourself. Surprisingly, I loved the small town nature of the book and it only helped to make the book more realistic. I have never been to a southern town, but from what I have read and seen, it seems to be quite on point.

The Serpent King proves to be an emotional and even bleaker book than Goodbye Days, but it does not quite surpass the latter. While I did not connect with one of the main characters and the emotional moments can become a bit too much, The Serpent King remains a great coming of age novel containing some great characters, gut-punching emotional moments, and a surprising small town feel.

Rating: Must Buy

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