The Serpent King, Jeff Zentner
Published: March 8th 2016 by Crown Books for Young Readers/Random House
Kindle Edition, 384 pages
Source: e-ARC from NetGalley
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.
He and his fellow outcast friends must try to make it through their senior year of high school without letting the small-town culture destroy their creative spirits and sense of self. Graduation will lead to new beginnings for Lydia, whose edgy fashion blog is her ticket out of their rural Tennessee town. And Travis is content where he is thanks to his obsession with an epic book series and the fangirl turning his reality into real-life fantasy.
Their diverging paths could mean the end of their friendship. But not before Dill confronts his dark legacy to attempt to find a way into the light of a future worth living.
I’m soon going to have to revise my feelings on reading YA contemporaries if I continue to get so lucky with my reading choices. Generally if I’m reading something contemporary I want adult but I kept seeing buzz about The Serpent King on Twitter – thanks to Eric Smith in particular – I was convinced to request a copy. The Serpent King joins some other excellent YA reads like All the Rage, Made You Up and Dumplin’. This book had me smiling and then crying within pages.
Dill, Lydia and Travis stand out from the other kids in their small Tennessee town, and though they are none too alike themselves they are the best of friends. Lydia has a popular fashion blog and supportive family that have her ready to head to New York for college, Travis has a Game of Thrones-like fantasy world to escape to and an online community for friendship. Then there’s Dill; Dill has to visit his father in prison and a plan to go full time at the local grocery store after graduation. Dill’s father was a snake handling preacher before he was sent to prison on the worst of charges and he and Dill’s mom- along with nearly everyone else- blames Dill for his sentencing.
The Serpent King begins as these friends are starting their senior year of high school both with dread and an eagerness to be done. Zentner’s excellent storytelling put me right into a cruel high school experience in rural Tennessee. I cringed as Dill and Lydia approached the parking lot each day. But he wrote this beautiful friendship as well so the terrible was balanced with humor. I loved how Zentner took the story right up to the edge of hopelessness and then showed how brave you have to be to move forward. These three friends made me cry and they made me hope.
As a side note, absent or terrible parents are par for the course in YA, which made Lydia’s amazing parents stand out all the more. I loved them! Even if they were a bit over the top, it felt good to read about a real and loving parent-child relationship; especially to hold up against the other parents in this book.
If you’re going to live, you might as well do painful, brave and beautiful things
This book was all of those things – painful, brave and beautiful. Read it!
Thank you Crown Books for Young Readers and NetGalley for this advance edition in exchange for an honest opinion!
Quotes taken from unedited copy in advance of publication.