The Serpent King – Jeff Zentner – Penguin Random House UK Children’s – Published 8 March 2016
Dill’s father is in jail for an unspeakable crime. Shunned by the neighbours in their small religious Tennessee town, Dill and his mother try to make ends meet. Dill’s only respite from poverty and prejudice are his two friends: Lydia and Travis. Travis is an oddball, finding sanctuary from his violent father in his obsession with an epic fantasy saga. Lydia is fast-talking and fiercely creative, pinning her hopes on her achingly cool fashion blog. Dill fears his heart will break when she escapes to a better life in New York.
Dill wants to get through his final year of high school in one piece. But there’s a dark secret at the heart of his family, a serpent poisoning his blood, filling him with despair. Dill must confront this legacy of madness and desperation before it tears him apart.
The Serpent King is an emotional and touching novel. Three friends together experience loss, the trials of social segregation, and hope and trepidation for the future. Set in rural Tennessee, Lydia, Dill and Travis fight for their futures against the backdrop of Southern charm and prejudice.
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from this book. The summary suggested a book about friendship, and it certainly is the focus of this book, but it is also about love, coming of age, and fighting the demons that seek to steal your light. It was surprising and totally engrossing.
Lydia, Dill and Travis are a strong trio of friends and yet they are totally disparate. The book cycles through each of their perspectives in short chapters, sometimes picking up right where one leaves off, providing a wonderful insight into each of the main characters’ heads and hearts. I loved the unique voices of Lydia, Dill and Travis. Lydia is an up and coming journalist, fashionista and blogger. To her, the small backwards town of Forrestville is a cage she plans to escape as soon as possible. The only (slightly uncool) upside is her friends, Dill and Travis. Lydia is the flame that brings this friendship together and the fire that keeps them burning, challenging and changing. She is vibrant and has a superb mastery of sarcasm. Dill is the son of a preacher currently serving time in prison. Dill struggles with his family legacy and the fear of what traits he has inherited from his father and grandfather. Lydia is the only bright spot in Dill’s life, but with her leaving to start her new life and college at the end of school, the darkness is strengthening its hold on Dill. While the other two characters are just as much a part of this book, it seems like Dill is the focus, the heart. Travis has a tough home life but is content in the fandom world of his favourite fantasy novel. He only wishes he could be as brave and heroic as his favourite character. He is Dill and Lydia’s balance, and yet seems to fly under their radars, until they discover just how much he means to them.
Of particular note is how faith is discussed in this book. While Dill challenges the way his parents view God and His will for their lives, Dill carefully considers what faith means for him rather than turning from it altogether, which I really liked. Further, his friends support him in this, never criticising or bullying, despite their own beliefs.
The mix of friendship, despair and humour is perfect in The Serpent King as these three friends ponder their futures and pasts, they learn more about themselves and each other.
The publishers provided a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Category: Young adult fiction.
Themes: Friendship, family, prejudice, poverty, small-towns, coming of age.
Reading age guide: Ages 14 and up.
Advisory: Coarse language, f***, s***, wh***. Sexual references.
Published: 8 March 2016 by Penguin Random House UK Children’s.
Format: Hardcover, paperback, ebook. 384 pages.
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