Monday, September 4, 2017

Review: The Serpent King – Jeff Zentner

The Serpent King – Jeff Zentner

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. The end of high school will lead to new beginnings for Lydia, whose edgy fashion blog is her ticket out of their rural Tennessee town. And Travis is happy wherever he is thanks to his obsession with the epic book series Bloodfall and the fangirl who may be turning his harsh reality into real-life fantasy. 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.

Review: For a book called The Serpent King, this story has a severe lack of serpents. Come on! Where are all the snakes? A Serpent King should have a kingdom of snakes. That’s only logical.

Aside from the disappointing snake situation, this book is pretty much flawless. Have you ever liked a novel so much that you just stared at the cover after you finished it? Yeah, that’s me right now. I have no words. Just weird staring. I love this book so much that it has reduced me to creepiness.

The story follows three teenagers who are outcasts in their small Tennessee town. Dill’s father is a former snake-handling minister who is now in jail for possession of child porn. Lydia is an outspoken fashion blogger. Travis is obsessed with a book series called Bloodfall and retreats into a fantasy world whenever the real world gets too real. Lydia has a scholarship to a college in New York, but after graduation, Dill and Travis will be trapped in Tennessee by family obligations. Before the kids can come to terms with their futures, tragedy strikes.

Where should I start? I’m slightly overwhelmed, guys.

Let’s start with the characters. They’re all quirky, but in completely believable ways. Actually, they remind me of me. Maybe narcissism is the whole reason this book resonates with me so much. As a teenager, I was an outcast in a town with conservative values. Since I was a weirdo at school, I turned to books and the Internet. I can completely relate to Travis’s desire to live in a fantasy world. I can also relate to the characters’ trapped feelings. You know you don’t belong in this place, but you don’t see a way to escape from it.

“I've made books my life because they let me escape this world of cruelty and savagery.” – The Serpent King

I like the message of the novel: Maybe escape from your unhappy life isn’t impossible. Maybe you just need to come up with creative ways to do it.

Speaking of cage-like small towns, the setting in this book is brilliant. I’ve never been to Tennessee, but the author makes it come alive for the reader. He doesn’t just show the landscape. He also shows the culture and problems in the town.

“People live quiet lives and that's okay. There's dignity in that, no matter what you may think.” – The Serpent King

My favorite thing about the book is how understated the writing is. This is hard to explain, but the emotions in young adult books often feel over-the-top to me. That’s probably because teenagers are over-the-top. (Or, at least I was an over-the-top teenager.) YA authors often try really, really hard to make the reader feel sad (or happy, or excited, or whatever). Every emotion the character has is extreme. Melodrama occurs. That’s why the emotions in YA books often feel forced to me. Jeff Zentner doesn’t have to force anything. The characters are so loveable that the reader is happy when they’re doing well, sad when they’re facing problems. It just works.

An example of what I’m blathering about is Dill’s depression. In my opinion, this book has a realistic depiction of depression. The author doesn’t have to go on and on about how sad Dill feels. The author just shows the subtle changes in Dill that eventually snowball into big changes. Then, one day, Dill can’t get out of bed. That’s how depression happens. (In my experience, anyway.) There’s not much melodrama involved.

“You're never safe from yourself. Your own blood will poison you.” – The Serpent King
“If you're going to live, you might as well do painful, brave, and beautiful things.” – The Serpent King

This isn’t a plot-heavy book. It’s mostly about the characters. The plot things I want to talk about are all spoilers, so I’ll just say that there are a few “Nooo!” moments.

Now I have to come up with something to criticize. I’m being way too nice. Maybe the “goodbye” scenes between Dill and Lydia are too drawn out? There’s a lot of hugging and crying and “I’ll miss yous.” I was ready for them to move on with their lives. I wanted to see what they’d do next. 

If you couldn’t tell from my babbling, I’m recommending The Serpent King to everybody. If you’re from a small town, it’s relatable. If you’re not, it’ll give you a glimpse at how weird kids cope with being weird in rural places. Also, it’s a really good story (that needed more snakes. I’m still bitter about the missing snakes.)


  1. Good review--and it sounds like an interesting book. If you want to get more into the culture of snake handling religion (along with all its demons), check out "Salvation on Sand Mountain". Its an easy and enlightening read. For a story set in your part of the world, Robert Laxalt's "The Man in the Wheatfield". It's fiction and there are plenty of rattlesnakes (it is set in rural Nevada) and is a story of good and evil and fear of strangers.

  2. I have this one and know I need to bump it up. I liked his latest book and everyone raved about this one. Glad you enjoyed this one too. Great review !

  3. I super loved this book, and I'm glad you did too!

  4. This was my top book of 2016 and that fact took me totally by surprise as I wasn't going to read it at first.

    1. I wasn’t going to read it either, but people kept telling me I’d like it. I’m so glad I read it. The people were correct.

      Aj @ Read All The Things!

  5. It is a beautiful and encouraging novel. This was one of my top reads the year I read it (2016?), and I still get feels thinking about it. I also began to really appreciate Dolly Parton after reading this and Dumplin'. Great review!

  6. I need to make some time to read this one. I hate snakes though so I am actually excited to learn that there is a shortage of snakes in this book. Great review!

  7. YAYYY I am SO happy that you loved this too! I agree, it is one of those books that is just so amazing, and it's almost hard to even explain WHY. This is hands down one of the best books I have ever read, and I fully agree, I had to buy it as soon as I finished- I was reading an eARC- and then I was able to pet the cover too. SO much love for this book! Great review!

  8. I'm glad you loved it too! And it's funny--I was also a bit taken aback that there weren't more actual, literal snakes involved.

    I think 2016 was a phenomenal year for new YA contemporary authors. Zentner, Albertalli, Murphy, Silvera...really good stuff.

  9. I'd be annoyed at the lack of snakes too! When snakes are promised, they should be delivered!

  10. Everyone... and I mean everyone loves this novel. Which thus, means I shall have to read it too. And hopefully proceed to loving it just as much.