The Serpent King: A Review

The Serpent King by Jeff ZentnerDill is used to being an outsider. First because of his father’s Penecostal ministry where members handled poisonous snakes to prove their faith. Then later because of his father’s arrest for possession of child pornography. Consequently Dills tries to keeps his head down and does what is required to get by while attracting as little attention as possible.

Travis doesn’t worry much about what other people think of him, his dragon necklace, or the staff he carries everywhere. He knows who he is and refuses to let anyone diminish his abiding love of fantasy novels–also he’s 6’4″ which is a big help even if he hates aggression and violence.

Lydia has never avoided notice in her life. Born and raised in small town Tennessee, she dreams of life in the big city. And she knows that her ambition and her fashion/lifestyle blog Dolly Would will help her get there–starting with her application to NYU.

While Lydia and Travis have their eyes on the future, Dill knows that this last year of high school is as good as he can hope for. As everything ends and falls apart around him, Dill will have to try to write a new beginning for himself in The Serpent King (2016) by Jeff Zentner.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Serpent King is Zentner’s first novel. It alternates first person narration primarily between Dill and Lydia with fewer chapters from Travis.

This novel is filled with evocative descriptions and dynamic characters. Lydia especially comes across as larger than life throughout the novel. While all three friends have a strong bond, they also have a lot of secrets. The contrast between their narrations highlight the ways that these friends come together and also the ways that they keep each other at a distance.

In addition to dealing with his family’s poverty and the repercussions of his father’s arrest, Dill also struggles with his faith throughout The Serpent King as he tries to reconcile his religious beliefs with his ambitions (and his mother’s refusal to believe that Dill can or should want more from his life).

Lydia’s life is a huge contrast to both Dill and Travis. Her family has more money, stability, and affection than either of the boys can imagine. While Lydia refuses to rein in her ambitions because of Dill and Travis’ limitations (they are both poor, have weaker grades, and fewer prospects after high school), she does unpack her privilege and gain some hard-won empathy as the novel progresses.

The Serpent King is an introspective and meditative novel closely focused on Dill, Lydia, and Travis. Thoughtful prose and a tense plot build to a satisfying conclusion as these characters realize the future can be whatever they choose to make it. Although the overall tone of this novel is melancholy, the story remains empowering and ultimately hopeful.

Possible Pairings: Down and Across by Arvin Ahmadi, Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman, Teach Me to Forget by Erica M. Chapman, Rapture Practice by Aaron Hartzler, Everyone Dies Famous in a Small Town by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock, This Raging Light by Estelle Laure, When We Collided by Emery Lord, The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan, 500 Words or Less by Juleah del Rosario, Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, Birthday by Meredith Russo, This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales, The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider, As You Wish by Chelsea Sedoti, Cloudwish by Fiona Wood

You can also check out my interview with Jeff Zentner starting tomorrow.