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 spot among the taunts and jeers is 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…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 on the tenets of friendship, faith, and courage Jeff Zentner writes The Serpent King with deft understanding and humility, easily posing this as a read bound to find itself on many top book lists.
The people of Amazon, Barnes and Nobles, and Goodreads are undoubtedly wondering what exactly this The Serpent King book is all about as they watch it fly off their cyber 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, I guess I’m just a black sheep on this one. My one sole problem that kept this book from being all the magnificent adjectives was not really one pin pointable issue (i.e. characters, writing, etc) but more an overwhelming feeling that Jeff Zentner just did everything half way. I’ll first give credit where credit is due though and give praise to the many aspects of The Serpent King that truly were masterfully done. For starters, the setting. It’s a decidedly unglamorous place seeped to the core in rural backwoods idealology, and one few authors would dare tackle. Boy am I glad though that Zentner took the road less traveled in crafting a town homegrown on Friday night lights, as the stories 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 exemplerate Dill and Travis’s stifling existense, but instead a true picture of the bleakness in 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 I really appreciated. While it’s not exactly what some readers will want, it nevertheless is in perfect keeping with a book that strived on its willingness to make the hard choices. That’s not really shocking though as I 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 surfaces could be projected on any reader struggling with unresolved tragedy in their life. Going down a bit on the scale of things I enjoyed; female protagonist Lydia. Even upon careful consideration I’m still not sure what my thoughts of her prescense in the book are. On the one hand she forced Dill to make tough choices I don’t believe he otherwise would have, however 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 though 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 groups 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 readers heartsrings. Easily forgettable and an addition that cheapened Zentners otherwise admirable craft. Really what this all comes down to is the only one of the three narratives I was at all invested in was that of Dill, everything else just felt like an unneccessary takeaway from his page time.
There were a few others aspects of The Serpent King I liked/disliked but won’t get into here for fear of spoilers, but that’s the nitty gritty of my opinion. Also, know that though 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 occasion I felt where the strength of his writing talent really shined through to create beautiful imagery or heartwrenching emotion. In conclusion…I highly recommend picking this read up when it hits shelves come Friday, March 8th!