The Serpent King
by Jeff Zentner
Summary: 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.
Wow. This book was amazing. I cried my eyes out. I RARELY cry when reading books, so when it happens, it’s typically not because it’s a tearjerker, but because I care about the characters and I’m just overwhelmed with feelings about their fates, whether good or bad. I swear, I cried for the entire last quarter of the book, but I also laughed. My heart aches with both sorrow and hope just thinking about it.
The faces behind Owlcrate frequently gushed about how they were putting their favorite book in March’s box, so I already knew it was well loved when I got the box. The theme of March’s Owlcrate was Writers Block, which is actually the perfect category for the book to fall into now that I’m finished. Before I started, I couldn’t quite figure out what it would be about. I don’t know why I thought it would be a fantasy or adventure.
The Serpent King is a brilliantly written contemporary novel about life, growing up, and finding your place in the world. Dill’s father, a snake handling preacher, was in prison for questionable content on his computer involving minors. Dill was named after him, so his name carried a stigma he never got to escape. Lydia, his best friend, was a girl with a great family stuck in a small town. She blogged about fashion and became internet famous, which was her ticket out of the town. Travis, their other best friend, was a simple guy who loved a fantasy series so much, he practically lived in it. He wore a dragon necklace, carried a staff, but also loved working on engines and being outdoors. He wasn’t necessarily stuck, despite his awful home life, because his escape was in his books.
The three characters dealt with some pretty awful things in their everyday life. They were all outcasts in their own way. At first, it may have even seemed like they had nothing else in common, but they had a tight bond and genuinely cared about one another. They dealt with so much stigma because they didn’t fit the mold of their small Tennessee town. Dill questioned himself often and felt like his faith was being tested, he was failing, or God had abandoned him altogether.
The book, while it does deal with religion, isn’t about religion. Dill’s father was a preacher of the extreme fashion, using venomous snakes as a test of his faith and winning. The small southern town contained people who became appalled by anything outside of the norm. There were people who would only read books from the Christian section and thought any type of adventure was going against Jesus. But the book doesn’t deal with the existence of God or anything like that, so if you’re religious and afraid the book will go in a direction you find to be unacceptable, you can rest assured that it’s not about that. It would only be offensive I think to people who are like the residents of the town, that think any individual thought is the devil whispering in your ear and a guy who would rather read instead of play football must not be very Christian and is likely a (insert offensive word to describe men who bigots think aren’t many enough). (And if that’s the kind of person you are, I highly doubt you’d be reading my review because you wouldn’t be clicking on book reviews for genres outside of Christian Fiction, so it’s a moot point.)
The book is moving, dark, haunting, tragic, and hopeful. I think the fact that, despite the absolutely horrific realities some of the characters live in, it remains a story about hope, courage, and bravery, is amazing. As I said above, I sobbed. It was such an incredible story.
I loved that the characters didn’t have to be a certain label in order to be outcasts. They were outcasts in their own right without being a stereotype, which is rare in this kind of fiction. Of course the goth or the gay person or the Wiccan would be an outcast in a Southern town, but the characters in The Serpent King are just people with unfortunate circumstances that make them stand outside of the pack.
I commend the author for weaving such a realistic and moving book that captures the essence of growing up and finding out where you will go, who you will be, and being brave enough to do it. I understand why it’s a favorite of Owlcrate because it’s definitely moving up to one of my favorite books, too. I HIGHLY recommend it.