The Serpent King

The Serpent King

The Serpent King was first published in 2016 and is Jeff Zentner’s debut novel. It is a contemporary story set in America’s deep-south, following three teenagers with very different backgrounds as they go through their senior year of high school. Please note that this novel stands alone and so does not form part of a series.

Growing up in a small town is never easy if you stand out. This is something that Dill, Lydia and Travis know all too well. While the three of them take solace in each other’s company, they have always been a favourite target of bullies. Now that they’re entering their final year of high school, the three of them must prepare for a time when their lives will change drastically.

For Lydia, finishing high school is the first step towards freedom. She looks forward to leaving her rural home town to study journalism in New York City. She longs for her two friends to also branch out and find their independence but doesn’t quite understand that their situations are very different from her own. Travis is content enough. Although he suffers horrendous abuse at the hands of his father, he has no desire to abandon his mother. Instead, he takes solace in fantasy worlds and the support of an online community of like-minded individuals.

However, Dill’s situation is different. His father was once a Pentacostal snake handler who is now in prison following a very public fall from grace. Dill suffers daily for his father’s crimes, discriminated against by the townsfolk and bullied by his mother who blames him for everything. With Lydia’s departure imminent, Dill begins to slip into despair as he realises he could soon lose the person he cares about the most. It’s up to him to find a light in the darkness before his depression consumes him.

The Serpent King isn’t to my usual taste in novel so I really hope that I can do it justice in my review. I was mainly just attracted to this novel by its unusual blurb and curiosity about snake handling (something that prior to reading this novel I knew nothing about). Before I begin, I would like to give a word of warning. This story is harrowing. It’s been a long time since I’ve been left so emotionally drained by a book. I don’t think that this story will suit every reader’s taste. The subject matter covers some very dark themes including paedophilia, abuse, depression and religious fanaticism. For the large part, I would not say I actually enjoyed reading it. It’s just not the kind of story I could take pleasure in. But I did feel that it was wholly effective.

I often begin my reviews by warning off the very young or sensitive. I’m not going to do that this time. This novel’s message is incredibly important as it covers many of things that affect teenagers, yet authors tend to shy away from depicting them. When I reviewed If You Find Me, I talked about how we have a tendency to wrap children in cotton wool to protect them from reality. Unfortunately, reality is not always kind.

Through Dill, Zentner presents a teenager who is being overwhelmed by depression to the point where he is on the brink of suicide. This is presented in a very honest way and is truly heart-wrenching to read. However, by showing Dill at his darkest hour we also see how he gradually overcomes his inner demons. While I found the novel to be incredibly disturbing in places, its message was ultimately uplifting and I foresee it really speaking out to teenagers who can relate to Dill’s struggle.

The novel takes the form of a snapshot – a year in the life of three teenagers from different social backgrounds. It follows them through their everyday lives from the start of their final school year to shortly after their graduation. While there is not much by way of a plot, the novel is character driven and shows how the attitudes of the people closest to the protagonists affect the way that they view the world.

The wealth of Lydia’s parents offers her the freedom to choose her future but her entitlement blinds her to the fact that no everyone is as fortunate. While she is quick to pressure her friends towards the futures that she thinks are best for them, she is initially unable to see that no everyone has the means to follow their dreams. Travis suffers constant verbal and physical abuse at the hands of his violent father and seeks escapism by reading fantasy novels. Although he initially seems to be the most hopeless case, he gradually finds his courage through the support of an online friend and the kind words of someone he deeply respects. Dill carries the burden of his father’s horrible crime and believes he has no future, a belief furthered by his deeply religious mother and her constant insistence that he must honour his father by paying off the substantial debts that he left behind.

One of the things that I liked most about the story is that all of the characters felt completely real, even if you disagreed with their actions. Even Travis’s father, one of the novel’s most despicable characters, becomes easier to understand when you discover that his domineering personality has become worse since the death of his oldest son. The world of The Serpent King is incredibly dark in places but it never went too far, always seeming grounded in reality, and that’s one of the things that made it both disturbing and affirming in equal measure.

The character arcs are filled with unpleasant happenings and bucket loads of angst but the novel’s message is still ultimately positive. The protagonists grow from their experiences, finding the hope and courage to pursue the lives that they want to live rather than those that have been forced upon them. The metaphor of the Serpent King himself is very powerful, emphasising how we each create in our own poisons rather than inheriting them from others. The best that we can do is find a way to remedy them so they don’t eat away at us from the inside. For all its darkness, The Serpent King is hauntingly beautiful and has some magnificently sublime moments.

I only really have one small issue with the plot and that is the death of a certain character around two thirds of the way through the story. While I won’t spoil things here, the death felt very sudden and meaningless in itself, like the kind of stunt a TV tearjerker would pull. This is a personal gripe but I’m a believer that death should be used sparingly in literature. If you kill off a character, you lose all stories that you could tell about them. In this case the death’s only purpose was the push the surviving characters closer together and force them to confront their issues, something which could have been handled a number of different ways. It just felt more like a plot device than something characterful that needed to occur.

Still, this one little hiccup wasn’t enough to make me dislike the story. While it’s unlikely to be a novel that I read again, it was certainly powerful enough to tear at my heartstrings and I truly cared for each of the protagonists. I’m glad that I had the opportunity to read this novel and will definitely keep an eye out for more of Zentner’s work in the future.

The Serpent King can be purchased as a Paperback and eBook on Amazon.co.uk

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  1. Trackback: The Sobeks 2016 – Part 2 | Arkham Reviews

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© Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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