Title: The Serpent King
Author: Jeff Zentner
Publisher: Crown Books for Young Readers
Release Date: March 8th 2016
Centered around three characters on the verge of adulthood, Jeff Zentner’s The Serpent King chronicles their journeys as their uncertain futures approach. Dill has never been popular, but when his preacher father is sent to prison, he becomes a social pariah. His friends Lydia and Travis are the only ones who don’t seem to judge him, but knowing the next chapter of their lives may not involve each other makes him feel trapped in the worst possible way. Lydia cannot wait to get out of Forrestville, Tennessee. The whole world is open before her and she can’t wait for an adventure, far away from the intolerant people of her small town. For Travis, all he needs in life is his beloved book series Bloodfall. His life at home may not be ideal, but as long as he can escape from his life through the pages of a book, he can get through even the darkest of days.
Being in the minority when it comes to popular books always feels somewhat awkward. The Serpent King has been receiving five-star reviews almost unanimously across the board. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel the same way while reading this debut novel. Of the three characters, I only felt a real connection with Travis. Despite growing up in a volatile environment, Travis has an openness and kindness to him that makes him an easy character to sympathize with. Travis’ complicated family dynamic is not the only one in the novel. Dill is the son of religious fanatics. Despite his father’s conviction, his mother remains loyal to the man, even to the detriment of her only son. Dill struggles with his own faith which I kept waiting to be explored more since much of his thoughts revolve around God. He became truly insufferable to me when he couldn’t find happiness in his friend Lydia’s success. Although I understand this largely had to do with his feelings of abandonment and inadequacy, I found it hard to sympathize with a character that went out of his way to make his friend feel bad about her bright future. Lydia should have been a character that I liked. She saw promise in people that most dismissed and was full of ambition. Unfortunately, I did not care for her pushy attitude and her one-liner insults often felt forced. Though she often meant well, I couldn’t help but notice that she felt her way of thinking was the only right way, which meant she often dismissed other people’s feelings.
The Serpent King is a solid debut novel with a few character issues. It asks several important questions including: how much do your parents define you and how much do you define yourself. It captures that uncertain feeling of leaving childhood for an unpredictable future, especially if you’ve never hoped for more than the circumstances with which you were born.