Book Title: The Serpent King Author: Jeff Zentner Number of pages: 384
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.
Should this book be picked up? the tl;dr review:
– A quiet coming of age centering on Southern youths living within The Bible Belt; the environment/infrastructure is vividly imagined
– Multi-POV narrative (2 boys, 1 girl) with socioeconomic and religious diversity
– Pitch perfect characterizations with accessible struggles that make it easy to empathize and root for these kids
– This story capitalizes on the art of living and growing up featuring prose that’s mundanely resilient, effortlessly luminous, and simply raw.
I read most of this book commuting on transit. The dialogue between my heart versus brain went something like this:
Heart: Oh hey there sad mome–
Brain: —FIGHT THE TEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRSSsss.
There are no spoilers in this review.
Disclaimer: I received a copy from Penguin Random House of Canada courtesy of Goodreads First Reads. I extend thanks for letting me read this in advance. (Also props to the creative decision to make the ARC cover feel so buttery.)
The voice championed by Jeff Zentner’s The Serpent King is incredibly flawed. And I don’t mean that in a negative way. It’s incredibly grey and full of Polaroid snaps of inspiration; the writing is mundanely resilient, effortlessly luminous, and simply raw. Not vegetable raw–uncooked, even–but like an honest-raw. There’s no pixie dust or purple prose to be found here. It’s raw and flawed in a stripped down no-frills way. Kinda like an acoustic cover. Plus they rhyme. Ish.
It’s a story that worked for a self-entitled non-contemporary reader (aka me), and if all else fails, at least this book (and Zentner by proxy) encourages you to devour Dill-flavoured products full stop.
…I am completely serious:
The only other time I’ve been immersed in Southern vibes was when I read a racially-driven story featuring undocumented immigrants. It’s definitely a change of scenery to be plopped into this pocket of The Bible Belt. That being said, I’m not too familiar with the Southern culture or drawl to speak to its truthfulness. What I can say is that the “look” from an infrastructure viewpoint was vividly penned and easy to imagine.
As a whole, the intersectional dynamics between characters as it guided their process of “growing up” was marvelous to follow. I expand on this later but The Serpent King is such a quiet story with so much grit particularly in socioeconomic and religious diversity.
Fair warning: faith and religion is a big part of this story and though it’s not overbearing or cumbersome to follow–worst of all “preachy”–part of me feels that I wasn’t able to fully grasp the thematic inclusion of these topics.
The greatest point of contention concerning the power of The Serpent King is in the uncomplicated and self-aware tone seen through the multiple POV narratives driving the intricacy of the voices weaving in-and-out of each other’s life. In many ways, it’s remarkably quiet in sustained conflict.
Dillard Early’s story is utterly precious and is gratuitously balanced by the unabashed ambition of Lydia Blankenship. I could word vomit the sound representation of faith-driven youths but the major selling point is that this quiet trio showcases loud struggles and simple difficulties of growing up.
Life that is full of shitty moments and those of sublime peace. Of hilarious tomfoolery set against the pounding voice of disappointment and responsibility. Of doing nothing and everything at the same time.
It is bizarrely the art of living and Zentner capitalizes on it.
When you can find a piece of yourself in each character–be it in a struggle, personality, or value–and allow it to be accessible enough to reflect upon…well, shit, just give Zentner all the accolades.
Travis Bohannon held my favourite and least favourite narrative between the three. Let me tell you why. I empathized with his enigmatic nerdism burdened by toxic environments unbeknownst to the outside world; that the voiceless smile to keep the world spinning for others. His perspectives open with an excerpt from the Bloodfall series (a story I fully expect Zentner to explore, damnit) and while I could have mistaken it for some metatextual nod, it feels much better to just buy into its face value. However, it was his revelation that rang unsatisfactory for me. Kind of a “that’s…it…?” moment of hesitation, taking a different route than I would have preferred. But that’s on me.
To reflect on The Serpent King (or any book) is to acknowledge comparable titles that offer as much precision and gusto in its prose to grant that pocket of time spent with these Southern hopefuls.
My experience with Zentner’s story can be compared to how I viewed A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (note: they’re sparsely different in tone and genre). A terribly unfair comparison only fitting for me, I know.
Both feature scenes of tasteful poignancy that gripped my heart in discomforting honesty. I felt and understood the struggles but they didn’t make me wither away and curl into a fetal position. Perhaps I’m just hardwired to be guarded against feeling shitty, and knowing this, I read with a 10-foot pole. Or maybe it’s just my disproportionate appreciation of contemporary fiction. Who knows.
The bottom line is this: hope, betterment, tenacity — this is what I found scrawled throughout the book in the shortest of breaths to the brightest sunsets shared between friends. That as a reminder of growing up, tomorrow is just another today.