The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

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The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

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Category: Teens
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Stephen Leach
Reviewed by Stephen Leach
Summary: A dark and deft novel about the lives of three teenagers in rural Tennessee. Young-adult fiction at its finest.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: March 2016
Publisher: Andersen Press
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1783443819

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Longlisted for the 2017 CILIP Carnegie Medal

I'm hardly the first person to comment on the saturation of the young-adult fiction market in recent years. I've several friends who love YA so much they seem to exclusively read this genre, and here's the thing – I really want to like it, too. I know there's good stuff out there, but it seems like the more I look the less I find. I've slogged my way through dozens – maybe even hundreds, who knows – of formulaic, samey and often downright repetitive books which didn't inspire any of that passion in me.

What a relief, then, to finally read a novel like The Serpent King.

After his pastor father was incarcerated for possession of child pornography, Dill and his mother haven't had it easy. Crippled by debt and viewed with suspicion by most of their town, things don't seem great for them. Though Dill finds support from his two closest friends, Lydia and Travis, each oddballs in their own way, Dill fears his heart will break when Lydia leaves for college.

The narration pivots back and forth between all three, and Zentner deftly makes them feel distinct from each other. Yet the one thing they have in common is that painfully shy, out-of-place feeling you have when you're young and don't know how to fit in.

One of the major themes explored is the harsh reality of poverty, which Zentner portrays heartrendingly – the exhaustion and petty humiliation of it, the way it systematically crushes any ambition. While Dill knows full well that Lydia will soon leave his life, it rapidly becomes apparent that the notion of him ever leaving his hometown or attending college himself is completely off the table. One day, his mother warns him early on in the novel, as she pressures him to drop out of school, you'll learn you're nothing more than your name.

Conversely, the classic I-must-escape-my-hometown trope is what drives Lydia's story. I expected not to like her at first, but quickly found my opinion on her shifting. Initially she comes off as pushy, dominant, slightly obnoxious even – but the fact that we get to see her POV very early on allows Zentner to show us the messy side of her character: how hard she works, how badly she, like her friends, wishes to escape small-town life, and – crucially – how blissfully unaware she is of her privilege compared to her friends. Ultimately, it's her determination to help Dill that pushes him to change his life for the better, and though their relationship ends up becoming romantic in nature it's not made to feel forced or cliché.

The only point I would criticize is that I wish we had learned a bit more about Dill's grandfather, the titular Serpent King. It felt at times like there was going to be more to this story or a final twist waiting to be unravelled. I felt this also with Dill's mother, who seemed slightly underdeveloped – again, I expected to find out more about her.

This is one I'll be rushing to recommend to people. The Serpent King is dark and emotional; it's a book that will grip you tightly and wring out all the feeling it can. It's exceptionally well-written. I'm honestly astounded it's a debut novel.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag. We also have a review of Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner.

If you like young adult fiction with an emotional bent, you might enjoy Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D Schmidt.

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Buy The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner at Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner at


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