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The Serpent King
This is a three star title, and had some conversation in the comments of our initial list post. Of course, I’m unable to say definitively whether or not it’s at the table for RealCommittee, but I’m always intrigued by religious themed (or even slightly religious flavored) fiction for teens. I ought to specify here, this isn’t inspirational fiction, or really even Christian fiction, although it is partially fiction about one Christian’s experience; it’s more a contemplative study about living with religion (at least as far as Dill is concerned). In addition, this is a snapshot of teens living in a small town setting (hey, since I also reviewed Exit, is this an official trend? j/k) which is not always something that makes it into my reading pile. So I’m pretty pumped to talk about this title, and I wonder how far it will go at the table.
In looking at these teens, Zentner is very careful to delve deeply into details. The chapters shift among the three main characters’ POVs, and each perspective is given consideration. (Just looking at technology: Dill has no computer at home, no device; he uses the public library computer. Travis has a phone but no wifi at home. Lydia has a laptop and a smartphone and wifi around — all worked into the text but not stressed. Just part and parcel of their lived experience.) This isn’t first person narration, but each teen has specific, recognizable dialogue, and when it’s their turn for a chapter, it feels easy to settle into their experience, Lydia and Dill in particular.
Another aspect that Zentner gets right: the amount of time the three friends spend in the car, and their need to seek out bigger cities. Although it’s the last year of high school, the three don’t spend much time in school; they’re frequently on the road, on their way to get things done, or hanging out in various spots in town. He gives them a lot of life that happens outside of school; these high school outcasts embrace their status and find other spaces and other places to be. (As someone who works in a school, it can be really easy to forget that teens’ lives aren’t necessarily dominated by what happens in classrooms and hallways at school.)
The big tragedy (I don’t mind being more spoilery-specific in the comments but am trying to be discrete up here in the post) is unexpected but still full of impact (yes, I cried). It genuinely surprised me, but also felt a little manipulative, and really highlighted Travis’s third wheel status. Dill’s reaction, his depression, and Lydia’s care for him and their eventual romance were all tied up together in a believable way, but all this resolution seemed to come about rather quickly, especially in a novel this deliberately and slowly paced. I think if Dill’s recovery had less of a montage-y feel, it might have kept the text feeling more balanced.
Lydia’s convenient internet fame might be something to bring up here. On the one hand, it adds a lot of interesting and cool complexity to her character. She’s flawed-but-fair enough to acknowledge that she hides her friends on her blog yet is willing to use them in her college applications. And even with those flaws — those flaws that she can see for herself — she’s bold and assured enough to call Dill on his lack of support for her future plans. That is toughness that I can love. On the other hand, she’s got a fashion blog and has been interviewed by the New York Times? Which I guess just happens to teenagers like all the time? I don’t know, something about it feels too easy and off (to me).
Maybe the biggest weaknesses here are the adults; they suffer in comparison to their teen counterparts. Their dialogue isn’t as specific, and in some cases it’s outright clunky. These weaknesses are particularly glaring in the characterization of all three of the mothers. For a novel packed to the last page and beyond with both failed and fantastic father figures, the mothers just…don’t compare well.
The author visit was possibly my favorite part…and also a moment that was a little hard to believe. I keep trying to work a “you know nothing, Jon Snow” reference in here, but this little sentence is all I got.
Here at the end, I think I have to go with “probably no” for Printz purposes; I just can’t commit to “contenda.” But this is a debut…and there is always the Morris award. What do you think?
Filed under: Fiction
About Sarah Couri
Sarah Couri is a librarian at Grace Church School's High School Division, and has served on a number of YALSA committees, including Quick Picks, Great Graphic Novels, and (most pertinently!) the 2011 Printz Committee. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, GCS, YALSA, or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @scouri or e-mail her at scouri35 at gmail dot com.
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