Details & Summary:
Title: The Serpent King
Author: Jeff Zentner
Publisher: Crown Books for Young Readers/Random House
Release Date: March 8th 2016
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.
“If you’re going to live, you might as well do painful, brave, and beautiful things.”
Many people recommended this book to me, but I didn’t really consider it until I’d read Goodbye Days by the same author, which I loved. I enjoyed his writing style in Goodbye Days and admired him for creating believable and relatable characters. So why not give The Serpent King a chance? I’m happy that I did. Though I prefer Goodbye Days, The Serpent King is a great read that explores important and difficult themes such as being true to yourself and believing in your own capabilities. (Content warning: physical abuse)
The book is split into three POVs for our three main characters: Dill, Travis, and Lydia. Though they each get approximately the same amount of “screen time” so to speak, Dill is inarguably the main character of this story.
Dill is a quiet high school boy, a musician, and the son of a preacher who’s in jail for possessing child pornography. His parents are extremely religious, which affects his day-to-day life. I’d even go as far as say they were emotionally abusive since they told him he could not go college and basically implied he could have no future other than they one they had in mind.
I have to say I found it hard to relate to Dill at first. He was very passive and went along with everything his parents said. His father was in jail (rightfully so) and he was supposed to somehow be okay with that and accept it was all “part of the plan” so to speak. Obviously, he wasn’t okay with it but he felt he couldn’t do anything about it. He felt like he couldn’t do anything that would get him out of town and into a better life. So instead of formulating some kind of plan to improve his situation, he got stuck in thinking his situation was hopeless and lashed out at Lydia for trying to help him and for being ambitious herself. But as the story went on, I got a better sense of who Dill was. He was hurt and nearly broken, but, despite that, he was still a good person.
I had no problem relating to Lydia and Travis.
At 17, Lydia is a famous fashion blogger. She’s very sassy, has the best comebacks, and has worked her way to a future of success. Her parents’ money helps, of course, but it’s mostly her own hard work that got her there. Speaking of, the relationship between Lydia and her father is one of the best and more hilarious ones I’ve ever read. I love their banter.
“I mean, it’s not like she doesn’t like anything. It just has to be Christian. Really Christian,” Dill said.
“Like the Bible barely makes the cut because Christ is only in the second half,” Lydia said.
And then there’s Travis, who’s basically a giant dork who’s obsessed by a fantasy series called Bloodfall and has a secret girlfriend he’s met on one of the forums. Unfortunately, his father is physically abusive but, despite his situation, Travis stays kind and sweet and utterly precious. I loved that guy.
There are several important themes that are tackled in this book, but I love how Zentner handled the theme of “quiet lives”, as shown through Travis. Travis didn’t have any big plans and he was okay with that. He was happy working in town because it allowed him to do the only thing he truly loved, reading Bloodfall after work. In short, he told us readers it’s okay to not want big, “ambitious” lives filled with success. You can still do brave, beautiful things.
“People live quiet lives and that’s okay. There’s dignity in that, no matter what you may think.”
However, Zentner also tells us you’re allowed to want more, as shown through Lidia and Dill. Lidia is obvious since she had her mind set on a career in New York from the get-go. Dill was a little harder. Like I said, he didn’t believe he deserved a better life. He believe that this was it and that there’s nothing he could do about it. In that way (and many other ways) I thought Zentner handled Dill’s depression really well. I felt just as hopeless as Dill toward the end. However, through an event I can’t explain because of spoilers, Dill realizes he wants more out of his life.
More importantly, he realizes he can have more.
We all can. We just have to be willing to try.
The Serpent King is a story about three teens living in a backwards country town who’re figuring out who they are and what kind of person they’d like to be. Zentner does a great job of balancing light and dark throughout the book. You’ll laugh at some of the characters’ antics, but you’ll also hurt when they do. In the end, Zentner leaves us with a hopeful note that might inspire others who find themselves in similar, seemingly hopeless situations.