I received this book for free from PRH Children's in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner
Published by Andersen on March 3rd 2016
Genres: Contemporary, Young Adult
Source: PRH Children's
A dark, southern gothic novel about small-town dreams, love and grief.
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.
Review: I heard about the Serpent King on twitter (from the lovely Carly at Writing from the Tub whose review is here) and it sounded completely up my street so I was really pleased when I was able to obtain a review copy on Netgalley. I love books set in the Southern US states, there’s something about them and the Southern Gothic movement I find completely fascinating and the summary seemed to suggest a True Detective style atmosphere.
The Serpent King is beautifully written and the small Tennessee town Dill, Lydia and Travis live in is bought off the page and feels so real. Dill, Travis and Lydia are defined, compelling and well-drawn out characters each of whom has their own story and arc within the book. Dill in particular really stands out as the main character who loves Lydia but knows she’s going to leave their town while he’s stuck. Although at the start the name stuck out for me slightly (Dill as in the pickle and it’s not a particularly common name in the UK as far as I’m aware) I was quickly sucked into his story. I thought his family and relationships with his family was beautifully done and felt poignant and painful and difficult. Dill’s father was a preacher in what seemed like a cult (with a bit of a fixation on snakes, hence the title) and is in prison for a serious offence. Travis as well is just heartbreaking and his desire to escape his life and live in a fantasy world feels so understandable yet horribly sad.
This book is great; it’s not particularly action-driven at the beginning and more about that moment when you realise your group may soon drift apart. Lydia is bound for university, she is not designed to live in the small town she inhabits but desires city life and fashion and style. At times, she treats Dill and Travis like secret friends, never mentioning them on her successful blog and a little embarrassed by Travis’ tendency to carry a staff and his deep love of fantasy novels. This actually felt sadly realistic but I loved how Lydia saw herself and developed as the book progressed. I also loved how her friendship with Travis grew too.
I don’t want to spoil this book but it changes from the book I thought it would be. It almost made me cry in public.
The Serpent King really worked for me and is one of the standout debuts of 2016 I have read so far. It passed the test of making me think about it for days after finishing and I thought it was a just beautiful, heartbreaking contemporary YA with a Southern Gothic twist. I would highly recommend this novel.