I went into The Serpent King expecting to read a funny book about yokel snake handling preachers and their families. A nice light romp to balance some of the heavy books I had been reading. I have never been more wrong in such a good way. The Serpent King is one of those books that transcends stereotypes and drills deep into the heart of a reader. It is a rare book that makes me feel so attached, so angry, so heartbroken and so hopeful in the scope of just a few pages. Dill is the beleaguered son of an imprisoned snake handling preacher, with an absent yet fervent mother who blames Dill for the family’s woes. His best friend Lydia, an up and coming teen fashion blogger, can think of nothing but leaving their small backwards town, no matter what bridges she burns on her way out. And then there is the gentle giant Travis who lives for his fantasy novels and is content to be his true self no matter the obstacles. These three friends are struggling to be themselves while battling an almost constant stream of negativity.
Jeff Zentner can tell a tale. His writing was crisp, nuanced and full of palpable need. The story arced between despair, yearning, hope, love and a bit of redemption without being hokey, or full of treacle. The plot was a brilliant mash-up of emotion and an almost frightening realism with the world created. I could feel the weight of the humidity and the oppressive stillness of the air. The pacing was generally spot on with a few small scenes that dragged; but they did not detract from the impressive whole. The characters, oh the characters. Dill, Travis and Lydia were three parts of a whole that worked on so many levels. A few times I did want to shake Lydia as she was a little self-occupied, but she was a teen character and show me a teen who isn’t a bit too into themselves. The emotions resonated throughout. I felt with the characters, not just for them and to me this is an important distinction.
The Serpent King touched me on so many levels. I expected very little of this book and instead was willingly gut punched multiple times and kept going. An engaging read that kept me thinking and reacting. I teach Junior Achievement at a local high school, and due to a holiday schedule had a free period. I pulled out my Kindle as I had fallen asleep on my couch with 45 minutes left to read of The Serpent King and figured I could knock it out while I waited. Not a good idea. The final fourth of the book is akin to one of those movies you watch, knowing you shouldn’t, knowing you will sob and yet you watch away with a pile of tissues next to you. I was not expecting what happened. I was pissed. I was legitimately mad at Jeff Zentner. Then I kept reading and got it. Not that it made it better instantly, but this was a masterful turn and Zentner can craft something special. So please pay attention to my PSA and read this in the privacy of your own home, but read it.
I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.