The Serpent King follows Dill Early, the son of a disgraced preacher who dealt with snakes, and his two best friends, Lydia and Travis, as they enter their senior year of high school. While Lydia is counting the days until graduation and Travis is caught up in the world of the fantasy novels he enjoys, Dill believes he is trapped in their dead-end town in the Bible Belt of Tennessee. But then tragedy strikes and he must take a whole new look at his life.
The writing of this book was beautiful. Jeff Zentner has the potential of getting better with the more books he publishes. Having grown up in the blue state of Massachusetts in a family that only acknowledges we are Catholic at funerals or weddings, the discussions about religion as well as the picture of rural Tennessee were fascinating to me. The author showed the ignorance of the town and how certain people took their unjustified anger out on those who didn’t deserve it. Going to church and living simply is the ideal of these people, but only because they are afraid of anything unfamiliar.
In terms of plot, virtually nothing happened until the beginning of the third act. The Serpent King is a strictly character-driven story, which I suppose works for the content, but know that going into this book if that is something you don’t enjoy. As for the characters themselves, Lydia annoyed me, I felt sympathy for Dill, and Travis is my little fanboy cinnamon roll. Of the three, though, I think Lydia had the better character development.
When the book starts off, Lydia is sassy, confident, and ambitious, but she’s haughty and self-absorbed. She writes a successful fashion blog, but acts as though she does not have any friends in her town, despite being so close to Dill and Travis. She has two loving parents and a good home life, unlike the boys, and does not seem to fully grasp how privileged she is until it is too late. For the first half of the book, Lydia thinks she knows what is best for Dill, ignoring his protests that he has responsibilities to take care of his disabled mother now that his father is in prison. By the end of the book, though, she has matured a lot in that respect.
Dill is a good kid. He does want to escape the town and the prejudice he faces there thanks to his father. He also wants to do the right thing by his mother and help pay off their debts, even though she treats him so poorly. Dill makes the best of his situation and chooses to live simply. As Lydia’s father tells her, that is not a bad way to live. I don’t think so either.
While Dill has good character development overall, my main issue with his storyline is the idealization of college from Lydia. Yes, college graduates do make more money in the long run, but as a Magna Cum Laude graduate with two national honor societies under my belt, I can tell you that does not happen right away. Since I graduated in 2016, I have had to work retail and temporary jobs. And this is not solely related to my BA in English, either. Lots of my friends who had degrees that were supposed to promise jobs after graduation were in the same boat.
The arguments Dill used with Lydia about not going to college were, in my opinion, logical. Another thing that was not introduced was the possibility of Dill waiting a year or two before going to school. That’s something else I know people to have done. I’m rambling, but I did not like the implication of this book that you must go to college to be happy or, if you wanted to go to college, you had to do it right after finishing high school.
As for Travis, he was the exception. Of the three main characters, he was the most well-rounded, despite his awful home life. I think a lot of people can relate to his love of a fandom. If I had to pick a favorite, it would be him.
Overall, I gave The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner 3.75 stars. If you like young adult contemporary novels with a bit of an edge to them or one with interesting discussions about religion, I highly recommend this one.