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The Serpent King

Review

The Serpent King

Ridiculed for his father’s extreme faith and public fall to disgrace, Dill Early feels like his DNA is tainted in poison. The only bright spots among the taunts and jeers are his two long-time best friends, Lydia and Travis, who are fellow misfits in the conservative Bible Belt town. As senior year approaches, though, the paths of the close-knit group begin diverging; Lydia to NYC for fashion school, Travis finding his place in the fantasy forums of his favorite series and Dill bagging groceries until the end of his days --- or maybe not. With the urging of his friends (and himself) Dill begins the arduous road to confronting his family’s dark legacy, in order to find a place for himself in the land of the living. Fueled by the tenets of friendship, faith, and courage, Jeff Zentner writes THE SERPENT KING with deft understanding and humility, easily posing this as a book bound to find itself on many top selling lists.

Booksellers everywhere are undoubtedly wondering what exactly this book is all about as they watch it fly off their shelves to gushing reviews. Like a butterfly effect, every reader who flips the final page is enchanted under a spell of humor, heartache and an instantaneous need to tell everyone about the book. That is to say, my lackluster review is entirely arbitrary and in no way reflects the thoughts of the majority. My sole complaint that kept this book from being all the magnificent adjectives others have used to describe it was not really one single issue (i.e. characters, writing, etc) but more of an overwhelming feeling that Jeff Zentner did everything half way.

"Fueled by the tenets of friendship, faith, and courage, Jeff Zentner writes THE SERPENT KING with deft understanding and humility, easily posing this as a book bound to find itself on many top selling lists."

I’ll first give credit where credit is due and give praise to the many aspects of THE SERPENT KING that were truly masterfully done. For starters, the setting. It’s a decidedly unglamorous place seeped to the core in rural backwoods ideology, and one few authors would dare tackle. Boy, am I glad that Zentner took the road less traveled in crafting a town homegrown on "Friday Night Lights," as the story's message of perseverance and adversity would hardly resound in a place where opportunities are a dime a dozen. I respect that Forrestville is in no way used as an accessory to further exemplify Dill and Travis’s stifling existence, but instead a true picture of the bleakness of the Appalachia region. This unabashed reality is carried straight through to the end of the book, where two of the characters have their story arcs wrapped up in a decidedly uncontrite manner that I really appreciated. While it’s not exactly what some readers will want, it is nevertheless in perfect keeping with a book that strives on its ability to make the hard choices.

I also loved just about every facet of Dill’s complex personality and backstory. He’s been forced to bear a tremendously heavy burden at a young age, and as a result is floundering as the one beacon of hope in his life is doing everything she can to escape him. While his circumstances are unusual --- on an unrelated note: I was fascinated in learning about the Pentecostal religion --- the feelings it inspires could be projected onto any reader struggling with unresolved tragedy in their life.

Going down a bit on the scale of things I enjoyed is female protagonist Lydia. Even upon careful consideration I’m still not sure what my thoughts of her presence in the book are. On the one hand she forced Dill to make tough choices I don’t believe he otherwise would have, but on the other, I found her to be very callous and naive to the complexity of Dill’s situation. Perhaps I wouldn’t have minded so much had Lydia just been a dominantly present supporting character, but being stuck in her head was a bit too much for me. I’ve had enough of the misunderstood, eclectic rich girl and I really expected Zentner to do something a little more unexpected with this character. I suppose that’s the mark of a truly well-written character; that you can simultaneously respect but dislike them.

Finally that takes me to Travis, the perennial third wheel of the group's threesome. While I liked him more than Lydia, his sole purpose in the book was only to further the storyline of the other two characters. Zentner attempts to flesh him out with the subplot of his online girlfriend, obsession with a fantasy series, (insert nerd reference), etc., but in the end it only felt like a dirty trick to play at the reader's heartstrings --- easily forgettable and an addition that cheapened Zentner's otherwise admirable craft.

There were a few others aspects of THE SERPENT KING that are worth discussing, but I won’t get into theme here for fear of spoilers. Also, know that although Mr. Zentner’s debut didn’t quite do the trick for me, I would gladly read any other work he decided to write in the future as there were several occasions where I felt the strength of his writing talent really shined through to create beautiful imagery or heart wrenching emotion. In conclusion...I highly recommend picking this read up when it hits shelves!

Reviewed by Megan B., Teen Board Member on March 8, 2016

The Serpent King
by Jeff Zentner