This book made me cry in public. Thanks a lot, Jeff Zentner. But it was brilliantly written, wonderfully executed and generally just amazing. I’ve seen lots about it around the blogosphere, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise, but it was, if a upsettingly wonderful one. I loved the characters, the focus on friendship and growing up, and the role that family played in this SOUL DESTROYING (in a good way) novel.
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.
The only antidote to all this venom is his friendship with fellow outcasts Travis and Lydia. But as they are starting their senior year, Dill feels the coils of his future tightening around him. The end of high school will lead to new beginnings for Lydia, whose edgy fashion blog is her ticket out of their rural Tennessee town. And Travis is happy wherever he is thanks to his obsession with the epic book series Bloodfall and the fangirl who may be turning his harsh reality into real-life fantasy. Dill’s only escapes are his music and his secret feelings for Lydia—neither of which he is brave enough to share. Graduation feels more like an ending to Dill than a beginning. But even before then, he must cope with another ending—one that will rock his life to the core.
First, though, the way that The Serpent King let me down was minor, but still worth mentioning. I felt like the theme of faith, and the role it plays in young people’s lives,was very underdeveloped. We have Dill, who’s father was like EXTREME RELIGION CRAZINESS, and he and Travis do seem to believe? But I couldn’t really tell what Zentner was trying to say about faith, because it was sporadic, not neatly woven in to the narrative. Sometimes, Dill would pray, or think about God and church, and sometimes he would seem really sardonic about it. I couldn’t quite work out what that was all about–and given that YA books which actually talk about faith of any kind (not just the extremist kind) are pretty rare, it felt like a huge missed opportunity.
“You think God wants anything for you but your happiness?”
But I loved the characters. Something about the title and the cover made me think this was fantasy, but, as it turned out, it was not. Anyway, the characters were amazing. My favourite was Travis. He’s big and nerdy (he loves fantasy books), and he is really vulnerable inside, because he’s still figuring out what he wants and where he belongs. When he was happy, you couldn’t help but be infected with the joy of it. I loved that he didn’t have big goals; he just was who he was, and he liked being that way. Then there’s Lydia. She’s wealthier, empowered, and a total fashionista, as well as a loyal friend. Her desire to leave the little town of Forrestvilled, compared to Dill and Travis’s intentions to stay, form tension for much of the novel. Dill is our last main character. He lives with his mum, who likes to make him feel guilty, and his dad is in prison. He doesn’t like the way he lives, but he doesn’t know any other way either. The relationship between these three characters was great. It felt real, and their different wants and needs collided to form the plot, which was really secondary to the character development. I loved how their perspectives chaptes gave us different insights into who they were. They were also in their last year of high school, like I am right now, and making big choices, so I could totally identify.
“He didn’t want to become one more unanswered prayer.”
Family matters a lot in this book. Lydia’s parents, especially her dad, are lovely: open minded, kind, understanding and all that. Dill wishes they were his parents. His crazy, very religious dad, is in prison. His mum lives hand to mouth, exhausted and judgemental. Travis’s mum is kind, but the power of his bitter, angry father, overshadows her again and again. I liked how their families whowed to what extent upbringing shapes you, and to what extent it isn’t. Zentner says, again and again, that family matters, but it doesn’t have to be everything.
“You are you and you are magnificent and brilliant and talented. You’re not your grandfather. You’re not your father. Their serpents are not your serpents. Their poison is not your poison. Their darkness is not your darkness.”
This is also a story of belonging. For a long time, the small town they live in has defined Lydia, Travis and Dill: it’s gossip, it’s small mindedness, it’s permanence. It’s not a great place, and it’s not a terrible place either. Zentner shows that part of growing up is leaving; leaving physically, maybe, but leaving behind the values that you don’t agree with for sure. I loved that. A character expresses the power of these values when he says.
“I’m tired of watching the world grind up gentle people.”
A lot of YA depicts friendship as simple and easy. You’re friends, and that’s all there is to it. While Zentner doesn’t ignore the fact that friends are loyal to each other, he shows that as people grow up and change, friendships evolve. But that’s okay. A fight does not have to break a friendship. It can make it stronger. Through all the pain of the events of this novel, Lydia, Travis and Dill are friends, even though they are different people and want different things from life. They stick up for each other. They are
”Young and beautiful and luminous and alive, keeping the darkness at bay if only for that brief moment”
They fight for each other, remind each other in the horrible moments that “a world without you would break my heart.”, and help. I loved that. Yes, these characters grow up. They become different, and in some ways similar, to their families. They try to work out what they believe in and what they value and what they want and how to fix things. But despite the heartache, they stay friends, and I loved that.
I haven’t talked much about the plot of this novel, but the plot isn’t important. The people are. There’s a little town and bad things and good things happen and choices are made and life goes on. There are friends in this town and they love each other and their families and grow up That is this story, and that is all it needs to be, and it is lovely.
What’s a book that has surprised you lately? How do you feel about coming of age contemporaries?