Published by Crown Books for Young Readers on March 8, 2016
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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.
He and his fellow outcast friends must try to make it through their senior year of high school without letting the small-town culture destroy their creative spirits and sense of self. Graduation will lead to new beginnings for Lydia, whose edgy fashion blog is her ticket out of their rural Tennessee town. And Travis is content where he is thanks to his obsession with an epic book series and the fangirl turning his reality into real-life fantasy.
Their diverging paths could mean the end of their friendship. But not before Dill confronts his dark legacy to attempt to find a way into the light of a future worth living.
With its contemporary setting, religious themes, serious subject matter, and known tearjerker elements, The Serpent King isn’t the sort of book I would typically love. But I went into it with an open heart and a strong desire to like it. Unfortunately, we didn’t quite agree. I felt that the weighty material the book wants to cover ultimately couldn’t be carried by the comparatively weak character portraits. Let’s delve into it.
The story centers on three main characters, Dill, Lydia, and Travis. Dill is living under the shadow of his snake-handling preacher father who has been in jail for several years now after a conviction on possession of sexual images of minors. In his small, Tennessee town apparently the sins of the father are visited on the son, as Dill must deal with an angry, judgmental community. He also struggles with the weight of his own conflicted feelings on faith and his desire to escape the small town and so something more with his life without abandoning his mother. Of course, there are also Dill’s feelings for Lydia that must be managed. Beyond that, I can’t really say much about him as a person. He’s not very well described.
Lydia is a wunderkind fashion blogger (already interviewed in the NY Times, and an attendee of New York Fashion Week), listener of Joy Division, and reader of Donna Tartt. Packed to the brim with sarcasm, she is unafraid to use her friends to whatever purposes suit her. Normally embarrassed by Dill and Travis, she hides them from her blogging audience. However, their less privileged backgrounds make for good college admissions fodder, apparently:
“Dill and Travis may have been off-brand for her blog, but they were resoundingly on-brand for her bootstrappy admission essay narrative.”
How lovely. I couldn’t really imagine why Dill liked her so much.
Travis was, by far, my favorite of the three. An unabashed fantasy nerd, Travis does not hesitate to wear a dragon necklace and carry around a wizarding stick View Spoiler » No, literally. The wizarding stick is a plot device. Just wait for it. « Hide Spoiler. Travis dives into the pages of his favorite fantasy series to escape the the verbal and physical abuse from his father, and the awful grief from his older brother’s death. Sadly, the story centers much more on Dill and Lydia, with Travis often feeling like an afterthought.
Unfortunately, for all three, their personalities are not deeply developed. They are more defined by their situations, and quirks of character, than by any real sense of character. This is not to say that the characters do not have any growth in the novel. They do, but the way it comes about was displeasing to me and also spoiler-y. More on that later.
The writing is okay. I did feel a certain sense of atmosphere. Zentner describes the landscape in such a way that his love for it is palpable. The vast majority of the novel, though, is spent in prose that does not particularly excite. There were occasional moments where it was particularly obvious this is a debut. I think that the use of the third person also contributed to my sense of detachment from the characters. I usually prefer third person, too, so it’s strange that it didn’t work for me here.
Here are the main conflicts of the novel: Dill is in a crappy, oppressive small town situation and it sucks. He wants to get out but feels trapped. Lydia’s life is pretty good and will continue to get better. Dill doesn’t want her to go away for college, and places unfair burden on her about this. Lydia treats Dill like a project that must be fixed. Travis has a crappy, oppressive dad, but he is fine with living in the small town and living a small town life and is altogether kind of happy. There are nearly 400 pages in this book, and so many of them seem to have the characters circling their issues without much forward momentum. That is, until The Thing happens.
About halfway through the novel View Spoiler » Travis is senselessly murdered. He is shot in a robbery attempt because, while reaching for his staff (see, I told you) the assailants mistake it for a bat/weapon. So Travis dies. Now Dill and Lydia are left behind to deal with their grief. Except Travis’ death feels like something that happens just so Dill and Lydia have something to learn from and something that ultimately brings them together romantically. I’m not okay with that. I get it. People die tragically and senselessly sometimes. Trust me, I get it. But their deaths aren’t “lessons” for the survivors. The problem is that the book wants to be a coming of age story about empowerment and finding yourself and making it out of small town America. It’s not particularly a novel about grief. Dill and Lydia get to have their moments of reflection and growth, but it happens so suddenly and rushed at the end. Don’t have this terrible, awful tragedy happen only for it to serve as a catalyst for the other two main characters’ action. « Hide Spoiler
I was not particularly a fan of the romance angle, either. Lydia and Dill’s friendship is troubled enough. Lydia’s privileged background and dismissive/superior attitude toward her friends is disappointing. Dill cannot stand the thought that, unlike him, Lydia gets to escape. He is constantly trying to keep her tied to the town, tied to him. It’s tremendously problematic. This isn’t to say it doesn’t get resolved, but these issues pervade the vast majority of the novel.
What is this story about? Who is it for? Is it to speak to kids who feel stuck in small, rural towns? If you’re trying to speak to real kids, then have the novel be realistic. Some contemporary is more realistic than others. This books wants to be a realistic, issue contemporary, but there are so many unrealistic elements. Okay, sure, Lydia is a super internet-famous teen fashion blogger. Those exist. But Dill is also a super talented singer and guitarist whose YouTube videos rack up tens of thousands of hits in days. Might there even be the hint of a record contract at the end of the rainbow? And obviously super famous and rich fantasy authors are perfectly reachable and amenable to suddenly make arrangements to hang out with three random fans during an hours long layover in their city. The weird, unreality of these elements created a discord that I couldn’t reconcile and made The Serpent King ultimately not for me.
An advance copy was provided by the publisher for this review.