I feel like it takes a particularly talented sort of writer to set their story in a small town; you begin to realise very quickly that the characters are going to run out of things to do. That means that your story requires characters who need only exist to keep you captivated… and that is exactly what Jeff Zentner has in The Serpent King.
“Dill is a misfit in his small, religious Tennessee town. His dad is in prison for a shocking crime, and his mom is struggling to make ends meet. The only things getting Dill through senior year are his guitar and his fellow outcasts, Travis and Lydia.
Travis is an oddball who finds comfort from his violent home life in an epic fantasy book series. And Lydia is like no one else: fast-talking, creative and fiercely protective. Dill fears his heart will break when she escapes to a better life elsewhere. What Dill needs now is some bravery to tell Lydia how he feels, to go somewhere with his music – and to face the hardest test of all when tragedy strikes.”
Genre: Contemporary YA
Year of Publication: 2016
Publisher: Andersen Press Ltd
Page Count: 372
Spoiler-Free Review: Yes
Before I started reading The Serpent King, I’d heard people saying that this was a heavily character-driven novel – but this is never off-putting to me. Taking this further, though, Zentner does the one thing which I always feel is risky in contemporaries but usually seems to work in fantasy: he flicks between three perspectives. It always seems like a risk because you have to contend with the possibility that one character is almost inevitably going to be more interesting than another. With Dill, Lydia, and Travis… this just wasn’t the case. Each character had such a distinct personality that still blended perfectly with the others and made me pleased to see that their perspective was back on the page.
My heart ached for our protagonist Dill throughout this novel. His home situation is dire, and Zentner offsets this with the insecurity that comes from his not knowing what his own identity will be once Lydia leaves. Until he discovers the true talent in his music – a lifeline – we are left just to hope that he can find his way in the world, and I found myself becoming quite fiercely protective of him. Lydia was then a constant source of intrigue for me. She represents so much of modern day teenage culture: her blogging, her constant need to capture perfectly ‘instagrammable’ photos, her desperate desire to break into the bright lights of college and the big city. Countering this with her struggle to reconcile her online personality and real-life friends (who are far from the ‘cool’ persona she presents online), Zentner creates a character who is ultimately very believable and relevant to our times. And Travis… he is just one of those characters that you can’t help but love. I resonated with his love of fantasy, and to me he is the definition of the idea that those who don’t say a lot see a lot, and think deeply about everything else.
It always seems to me that in YA there is a gap where the 17-19 age group should be. There is just such a lack of characters in the position of being at university/going through the motions of applying for university for some reason. I loved how much of a prominent role this had in TSK. There’s this feeling of impermanence and anticipation throughout that manifests itself differently between each character: Lydia’s excitement and Dill’s feeling of dread are both wildly different but equally relevant to how people of this age group do react to a sudden change to the way they’ve lived their life for the last seventeen years.
Of course I have to mention Zentner’s writing, because it deserves all the praise that the novel’s cover suggests. Capturing a teenage tone – in both the lightest and darkest moments of the novel – Zentner dazzles with the way in which he blends poetic language with dialogue that feels as though it is taken directly from a real teenager’s vocabulary. Here is one of my favourite passages:
Given that this was the sort of book where the characters are so dominant to the moving forward of the story, it seemed to me that it was more relevant to focus on them over the events. That’s not to say that they shouldn’t be spoken about: the events in this novel are harrowing and heart-wrenching. The Serpent King isn’t an easy read, because even in its lightest moments you are aware of the presence of the word “tragedy” which makes its way into the blurb. You can feel it hanging over every event because you’re wondering when it is going to come into fruition, and when it does, Zentner ensures that he has made it so that you feel it. I genuinely had to put the book down for about ten minutes. Zentner sets you up for an uneasy ride that will probably make you cry, and although I suppose the premise of some of the events have been done before in YA, they haven’t been done with these characters and less often with this much heart. That being said, we still get moments of real optimism sprinkled throughout the novel, and I for one was desperate for these characters to get the (sort of?) happy ending they deserved.
I could go on for so much longer about this book. I wanted to talk about the religious aspects, the family relationships, and the prominence of friendships, but I’m already 938 words deep and I feel like someone should probably take this keyboard away from me. So, reluctantly, that’s it for my part! I would love to hear other thoughts on this book though – have you read The Serpent King? What did you think of it, or if you haven’t read it, would you consider picking it up?
Rating: 5/5 stars
Have a beautiful day,