bookish review

Review: The Serpent King, Jeff Zentner

The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner
Hardcover, 384 pages, Received from Owlcrate subscription

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. 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.

Is this really the only book I finished between May and September? Yikes. I had to take a break from Adrienne Mayor’s The Amazons; not that it isn’t an interesting read, but it’s the sort of nonfiction with several hundred pages of footnotes and cross-references, and it’s hard to rebuild momentum now that I’ve lost the initial push.

But moving on to The Serpent King. I’m having trouble putting it into words. This is a novel about growing up, facing down monumental change, friendship, and feeling trapped by expectations and legacy. It deals with family – the good, the bad, the downright ugly. It deals with jealousy, depression, how life is often shitty and unfair and how people are more often than not the reason for that shittiness and unfairness.

The narrative rotates between three characters, with the focal character clearly labeled at the start of each chapter. Dill is the son of a Pentecostal minister who ran a signs ministry based around handling poisonous snakes and drinking diluted poison – before he landed in prison for possession of child pornography, leaving Dill and his mother behind to deal with his several hundred thousand dollars worth of debt. Dill’s family has a “we’re all in this together” attitude, except when it comes to taking blame, in which case his family and father’s former congregation are happy to lay responsibility at Dill’s feet. The end of high school looms in what Dill perceives as the end of everything good in his life.

Travis lives in his own world; reality is rarely kind, so he prefers fantasy, specifically the world developed in a series of books called Bloodfall. Travis wears a cheap dragon pendant, carries a staff, and reads “un-christian” books. His refuge – from an abusive father, a mother who doesn’t want to make waves, and an older brother killed in active duty – is an online forum for fans of Bloodfall, through which he talks to and starts falling for a fellow forum user, Amelia.

Lydia was raised in Forrestville by affluent parents who returned to the countryside to take over her grandfather’s dentistry practice. Her ticket out of Forrestville is her fashion blog, Dollywould, a brand she has worked hard to expand to the point where her readership includes pop stars and fashion magazine editors. Life in the rural south requires omission to remain “on-brand”, however, so the story Lydia spins for herself online sets Lydia far apart from her town and offline friends. She’s an abrasive and sarcastic character, and in contrast to Dill, she believes that her last year of high school is a countdown to when her life will truly begin.

The Serpent King is quiet and character-driven: the plot builds toward its climax with the same sense of anxiety that Dill and Lydia feel for the future, while much of the conflict is interpersonal or internal. Zentner writes in his acknowledgments that “I wanted to write about young people who struggle to lead lives of dignity and find beauty in a forgotten, unglamorous place. Who wonder what becomes of dreams once they cross the county line. This book is my love letter to those young people and anyone who has ever felt like them, no matter how or where they grew up.

Zentner successfully captures the claustrophobic feeling of growing up in a small town: my own hometown didn’t have the same level of religious extremism, but overall Forrestville rang true to many things I loved and hated about growing up on the edges of a backwater nowhere as a teenager. Zentner’s message – his “love letter to those young people” – transcends the novel’s very specific subject matter without making Forrestville generic and formless enough to be just anywhere.

That said, I did have some issues that detracted from my overall rating. The main romance didn’t work for me. The pacing could have had a better. Class divides are central to the story but it felt odd that race didn’t factor in, considering the setting and my understanding of this region of the U.S. Overall, though, this was an interesting book about growing up, friendship, and self-betterment in bleak circumstances, and I enjoyed it more than anticipated.

Next up: This review has been in drafts for a month, putting me several books behind in reviews at the time of posting. Currently working on a review of Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories by H.P. Lovecraft.

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