I used to pride myself on not crying during emotional scenes in books, though as I’ve grown older and gained more world experience, I find myself moved to tears by books more often. Sometimes you can see me crying in the front window of my favorite coffee shop. The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner is one such book that has reached down into my soul and tugged at each miniscule heartstring (perhaps I’ll write a future post entitled “Austin’s Top 5 YA Novels for Clearing Out Your Tear Ducts”), possibly ripping a few out before fitting them all back together.
Zentner takes us to rural Tennessee as we follow our protagonist, Dill, and his two best friends, Lydia and Travis, through their final year of high school. Dill struggles in poverty; with his father (a snake handling minister) in prison, Dill’s own unclear future seems grim. Lydia, using her fashion blog as a platform, struggles with busting out of the rural scene in a community where she feels boxed in and stifled. Travis, on the other hand, deals with his “social outcast” label - at home and at school - by escaping into fantasy novels and games (he even has a cool wizard staff). The three, however, have an incredibly deep bond that allows them to see each other’s flaws while still being supportive through their difficult times. At its heart, The Serpent King is tale of friendship, doubt, depression, and coming to terms with reality.
I feel like Jeff Zentner was channeling my inner spirit into three completely different characters. Dill’s struggle with religion, Lydia’s desire to leave her rural town, and Travis’ escapism through fiction are issues that I have dealt with in my past (and possibly still struggle with on occasion). With that knowledge, it’s quite possible (probability states 100% likely) that I’m giving this rating and review out of pure emotional connection. Someone else may read the book and find flaws that I never perceived, yet I think that is the power of this book: I was so emotionally invested in the characters (if less so with Lydia than Dill and Travis) that I didn’t notice potential flaws. I can’t even name any at this point because I just remember hoping my new “friends” would be ok!
I would definitely suggest this book to anyone who enjoys more contemporary, realistic worlds that focus on building relationships. Considering this book made me cry AND it was a debut novel for Jeff Zentner, I’d give this book 5 out of 5 Awesome Austin Points. As far as debut novels go, Zentner outdid himself with characterization while exploring religion and growing up in rural America in the present age. Get out there and read it! - Austin Miller (resident YA expert)
[Hey everyone! In case you missed my last review on Scythe by Neal Shusterman, this is Review #2 of my Top Five picks (in no particular order) from the 2018-2019 Gateway Readers Award Nominees. There’s information on the award here and the Top 15 books here. The committee always welcomes volunteer readers!]