The Serpent King - Jeff Zentner

Honestly, I didn't plan on writing this review. My feeling and thoughts for this book are all over the place.


I have to admit that I probably wouldn't have picked this book up on my own based on the description. I've lost interest in contemporary books (especially YA) that aren't mysteries, thrillers or have some element of magical realism, so don’t take my criticism seriously if contemporaries are your thing.


The story centers on three main characters, Dill, Lydia, and Travis. Dill is living under the shadow of his snake-handling preacher father who has been in jail for several years now after a conviction on possession of sexual images of minors. In his small, Tennessee town apparently, the sins of the father are visited on the son, as Dill must deal with an angry, judgmental community. He also struggles with the weight of his own conflicted feelings on faith and his desire to escape the small town and so something more with his life without abandoning his mother. Of course, there are also Dill’s feelings for Lydia that must be managed. Beyond that, I can’t really say much about him as a person. He’s not very well described.


Travis is an outcast because he's a rabid fan of a fantasy series and carries a staff everyone. Lydia is unpopular because... actually, I don't know why. She's also an internet-famous fashion blogger which somehow equates to uncool in her small town, but that reads so unrealistically to me. But whatever, as Lydia applies to NYU and Travis meets a fellow fan outline, Dill deals with the guilt of what his father did and his fear that all his friends are leaving him.


Out of the three characters, Travis was by far, my favorite. An unabashed fantasy nerd, Travis does not hesitate to wear a dragon necklace and carry around a wizardry stick. Travis dives into the pages of his favorite fantasy series to escape the verbal and physical abuse from his father, and the awful grief from his older brother’s death. Sadly, the story centers much more on Dill and Lydia, with Travis often feeling like a plot device.


The writing is okay. I did feel a certain sense of atmosphere. Zentner describes the landscape in such a way that his love for it is palpable. There were occasional moments where it was particularly obvious this is a debut. I think that the use of the third person also contributed to my sense of detachment from the characters. I usually prefer the third person, so it’s strange that the book didn’t work for me here.


I wasn't a fan of the romance angle between Lydia and Dill, their friendship is troubled enough. Lydia’s privileged background and dismissive/superior attitude toward her friends are disappointing. Dill cannot stand the thought that, unlike him, Lydia gets to escape. He is constantly trying to keep her tied to the town, tied to him. It’s tremendously problematic. This isn’t to say it doesn’t get resolved, but these issues pervade the vast majority of the novel.


Another thing, the serpent king want to be realistic, with a contemporary element, but there so many unrealistic elements. Yes, there a girl who are like Lydia a super internet-famous teen fashion blogger. Those exist. But Dill was so unreality with him being a super talented singer and guitarist whose YouTube videos rack up tens of thousands of hits in days. Might there even be the hint of a record contract at the end of the book? And obviously, super famous and rich fantasy authors are perfectly reachable and amenable to suddenly make arrangements to hang out with three random fans during a hours-long layover in their city.


Overall, I thought this was a really okay debut novel. I just felt like the few things that I didn't enjoy impacted me pretty strongly. If you are on the lookout for a contemporary that has a very different setting and focuses on some heavy issues, I do recommend picking this up. The things that I pointed out are very much my things and I don't think that it will warrant the same feelings for most people.


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