BookBrowse Reviews The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

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The Serpent King

by Jeff Zentner

The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Mar 2016, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2017, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Bradley Sides

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As the son of a snake-handling Pentecostal minister, Dill has to wrestle with vipers both literally and figuratively in this YA story about finding oneself.

The teenage years. Everyone who's either living them now or has already survived them can vouch for the fact that they are some of the toughest years of life. High school drama is typically the biggest part of the problem. Unreliable friends, silly gossip, and unhealthy competition are enough to make anyone upset. For many young people – the lucky ones – life isn't all that bad outside of school. Home, with loving parents and a warm bed, is where they can recuperate. For others, though, the drama in classrooms and hallways is almost nothing compared to what they deal with at home. For these unlucky ones, home is full of unjustified guilt, inexplicable anger, and unimaginable responsibilities. Jeff Zentner's The Serpent King, set in rural Tennessee, follows the complicated life of teenager Dillard "Dill" Early Jr. As you can guess, he's one of the unlucky ones.

Dill hates thinking about the future. The reason: he can't imagine that he will have much of one. Most of his pessimism is due to his father. Dillard Early Sr. is a legendary and infamous snake-wrangling pastor – and, even worse, he's serving time in prison for possessing child pornography. Everyone in Dill's community knows his story. What makes everything worse is that part of the town, the pastor's loyal followers and Dill's own mother, blame Dill for not taking the fall so that his father could continue to spread his gospel, and another part of Dill's community thinks that Dill probably shares his father's diseased mind. Zentner tells us about Dill's reaction to seeing people he knows: "He loathed the flash of recognition that usually passed across people's faces when they learned his name. That rarely resulted in conversation he enjoyed." Dill is definitely a young man on the outskirts of normalcy.

Zentner's protagonist quietly fights to rise above what life has given him. Dill questions almost everything. He struggles with trying to love and respect his mother, who continuously makes her son feel guilty for his father's sin. Dill thinks to himself, "God is punishing me for dishonoring my mother and going to school. He won't allow me even an hour's peace." Notice that I said that Dill fights, and what a fighter he is.

Part of what allows him to fight is the love and support he receives from his two equally misfit friends, Travis and Lydia. Travis is a soft-spoken and overgrown teenager who has an interest in cars and in a science fiction book series. Travis wears a dragon necklace and often walks with the assistance of a wizard's staff. Travis' family life is a lot like Dill's – he has an abusive and drunken father who rules with an iron fist. Lydia couldn't be more different from both boys. Her family is rich and loving. She is ruthlessly sarcastic, constantly mocking her hometown and the people inside it. She also runs a popular fashion blog called Dollywould. Somehow, the trio works. The way Zentner creates and layers these three characters is so dynamic and genuine I had to keep reminding myself that The Serpent King is fiction because I was sure that I knew these people.

Zentner's novel touches on elements that seem very adult for a young adult novel. He has a commanding and sensational understanding of the rural South's underbelly, as The Serpent King often ventures into southern noir territory. The abuse he describes is palpable. There are moments of intense violence. His characters' voices deliver stark commentary on the state of parts of the South. Lydia says, "It sucks here. People are dumb and racist and homophobic." There is nothing safe about The Serpent King. I think it's this sense of rawness and honesty – Zentner's willingness to dive completely into the dark world he paints – that makes the novel's atmosphere seem so alive.

Another aspect that Zentner captures exceedingly well is the everyday, internal struggles of a teenager. Dill, Travis, and Lydia each have separate dreams. Dill loves music and wants to be a singer. Travis wants to follow in his favorite author's footsteps. Lydia wants to go to college and become a fashion icon. They each have private thoughts, too, that they are too embarrassed to share. For instance, Dill keeps having an unwanted fantasy of Lydia leaving him behind. He imagines her telling him: "There's something I want to talk to you about. I'm leaving you behind to go on to a bigger and better life and I'll never think about you or speak with you ever again." His thoughts of being abandoned by someone he holds so close are not an uncommon anxiety.

It is no surprise, given the subject matter of The Serpent King, that Zentner also explores how teenagers deal with religion and mortality. What does life mean? Is there a point to the struggle? How does one truly connect with God? Zentner, of course, gives no definite answers; however, he does remind readers of the kinds of big and serious questions that other (safer) YA novels oftentimes fail to explore.

The Serpent King is a mesmerizing piece of fiction – one full of heartbreak and wonderment. It shows us that life, even one full of struggle, is still worth living. As Dill's story comes to a close and he reflects on all he's overcome, he admits, "I'll miss this." When I finished the last page, I felt the same way. What a ride Zentner takes us on. What a glorious, beautiful ride.

Reviewed by Bradley Sides

This review was originally published in March 2016, and has been updated for the June 2017 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



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