Friday, June 10, 2016

Book Review: "The Serpent King" by Jeff Zentner

Life is pretty tough for Dill Early. It wasn't always easy growing up as the son of a controversial Pentecostal minister who, along with members of his congregation, handled rattlesnakes and drank poison. But when his father runs afoul of the law and winds up in prison, life gets even harder for Dill. He must deal with the constant bullying of his high school classmates and the suspicion and cruel treatment of former church members and others in his small town of Forrestville, Tennessee.

The future looks bleak for Dill—he cannot even begin to consider college because he has to help his mother survive financially, given the mountain of debt they live with since his father's legal troubles occurred. But fortunately, his two best friends, Lydia and Travis—outcasts in their own right—are there to attempt to cheer him up and support him. Lydia, the creator of a fashion and culture blog, can't wait to get out of Forrestville and start a new life, hopefully as a student at NYU. Travis would rather spend time reading and re-reading his favorite series of fantasy books then focus on his own problems, which he has largely kept a secret from his friends.

As the end of their senior year in high school draws closer and closer, and Lydia gets more excited about leaving their town behind her, Dill gets more and more upset. He feels as if she'll be happy not only to get out of town, but to get rid of him and Travis, and that hurts him more and more, especially as Dill comes to realize just how strong his feelings are for her. Lydia tries to encourage Dill to think beyond the limits he and his mother have put on his future, tries to make him believe that college is an option. But Dill views her attempts to help as wanting to change him. And as events in their lives go from bad to worse, he's afraid to make himself even more vulnerable, and he doesn't want to jeopardize their relationship.

"Because we should do things we're afraid of. It makes it easier every time we do it."

The Serpent King is a beautiful and moving book, at times bleak and at times hopeful. It absolutely captured my heart and my mind. I loved these characters and their interactions with each other. These characters may be somewhat wise beyond their years but they act like real teenagers—you don't marvel at their dialogue at the same time you wonder whether teenagers really talk this way. I was utterly invested in this story from the very first page, and as much as I wanted to read the whole thing so quickly, I was really sad that it was over when I was finished.

This is a book about how we can't let our lives be dictated by our families or our heritage, and we can't let those around us limit our potential. But more than anything, this is a book about friendship and how it frees and changes us, and how we must find the courage to act on our desires and wishes before it's too late.

"And if you're going to live, you might as well do painful, brave, and beautiful things."

Jeff Zentner is such an assured writer; it's amazing to think this is his debut novel. I really loved this, and once again, I marvel at the amazing talent being demonstrated in the YA genre these days, although this isn't a book just for young adults by any means.

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