The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

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The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner
Crown, 2016.

In this appealing William C. Morris award winner, three friends go through their senior year at school in mostly blue collar dead-end Forrestville, Tennessee. All three are social outcasts. Dill is the son of a jailed Pentecostal preacher who was imprisoned for possessing child pornography. Lydia is the creative fashionista behind the Dollywould blog, and her middle class family and creative sensibilities set her apart. Travis, the burly and gentle son of an abusive father and compliant mother, escapes into the Bloodfall fantasy novels and insists on wearing a dragon necklace and carrying around a staff. Their friendship may be unlikely, but Zentner makes it work.

I loved these characters, so vivid and genuine. Shifting between the three narrators, the first two-thirds is at a relaxed pace as we get to know them all. We understand the layers that make them up: their families, their ambitions, their limitations, self-imposed or otherwise. Through their eyes we see their possible futures: Lydia is the only one planning to escape the bounds of Forrestville by heading up to NYU, whereas Dill’s family are deep in debt from his father’s legal bills and can’t afford for him not to work, and Travis has no ambition beyond working at his father’s lumberyard.

Zentner lost me on a couple of points. There is a dramatic plot twist that sets the final third on its head and I felt the novel then shifted into a more conventional fraught YA romance. Secondly, I didn’t like that it’s the middle class family that are so wonderfully supportive and loving, whereas both working class families are wretched and dysfunctional.

Nonetheless, Zentner has clearly got a talent for deep and rich characters and settings, and I look forward to future novels. Recommended for fans of Jandy Nelson and Jennifer Niven.

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