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The Serpent King

serpent-kingThe Serpent King by Jeff Zentner
March 2016, Random House
Reviewed from an ARC

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?

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.


  1. I liked this book enough that I wound up reviewing it and interviewing the author on my blog. I have it slated for consideration for my library system’s Mock Printz although I’m not sure it will get enough backing to actually make our short list. It also seems like this is a book that evokes strong feelings and I can’t help but think that the title and plot summary do a bit of a disservice when it comes to conveying what the book is actually about.

    I agree with you completely about the mothers and kept wonder if that was the kind of thing that says more about the author/editor/behind-the-scenes people than about the characters if that makes any sense. It felt especially weird to have Lydia’s father be so present but her mother just kind of not. Travis’ mother came close to being interesting but again fell short.

    I guess the author visit was a bit unbelievable but I gave it a pass because doesn’t connecting with an author you idolize always feel a bit magical and amazing like that even if it probably doesn’t end in an hours-long outing and ice cream? (I also think it had to be that wonderful or the end of Travis’ arc would have just been too devastating.)

    Weirdly I didn’t even stop to think about Lydia’s blog fame being bizarre and convenient and I’m wondering now if that’s some bias I brought to the story as a book blogger. Hmmmm.

    Now that you’ve mentioned it, I’d be pretty happy to see this book getting a Morris nod but it does seem distant as a Printz title since the book’s excellent characterization (for the most part) tends to highlight some of the less-well-done plotting.

  2. I knew the spoiler already going into this book so I was surprised at how long it took to get there. And when it did happen, I felt like it was just there because the author didn’t know what else to do with that character and needed a tragedy to move everyone else forward. It felt a bit manipulative to get the other characters together and Dill towards college and I felt like Travis was forgotten very quickly. There were a few references to him but I felt like it was almost as if the book hadn’t included him at all and there were two different novels here. I also wondered a bit at times why they were hanging out with Travis. A lot of times it seemed like they just made fun of him and I never fully felt a true friendship between them all but a friendship of convenience-which is true to the setting I think. I felt Dill and Travis were more friends and I wasn’t sure where Lydia fit in exactly.

    I also thought Lydia’s fame was easy and convenient and the blog posts throughout threw me out of the book. They weren’t consistent enough. And the ending with Dill getting noticed due to Lydia’s fashion fame was just too perfect compared with the rest.

    I loved the parts with Dill and his family-his growth away from his father and what he thinks is his family legacy. The scene with his mom where she tells him he could have lied and that she’s not sure that everything is Dill’s fault was the most haunting scene and I think it’s the strongest piece of writing in the book. I wish more of the book had focused as I thought these scenes were so well done and had so much meat to them.

    I think there’s a lot to talk about here but I don’t see it going far in the Printz discussions because I feel it won’t rise to the top. But I can see it getting a Morris nod for sure.

    • Oh and I hated the author visit part. So out of the blue and unrealistic and Mary Sue. It just didn’t work for me when I felt everything else was ringing very true. It felt like a bit of fantasy thrown into a realistic contemporary novel and it didn’t work for me.

    • Funny that you say that Travis was forgotten about so quickly, when I thought it was really the opposite. Dill seemed to be in mourning for quite a long time, though that may have been my interpretation as the book was a lot more a character study than plot-driven, and the chapters following his murder were appropriately slow and somber.

      I didn’t mind the author visit as much as some people did. I thought at first, the way Travis and the bookstore owner spoke of him, the author was more of a mid-level SF/F writer, but then later it seemed like he was supposed to be more of a George R.R. Martin-type. So yeah if he was the former it wouldn’t have bothered me.

      As for Dill & Lydia “making fun of Travis” – I read it much more as good-natured ribbing than making fun of or bullying. They all did that to each other to some degree. It felt like they came together as outcasts, and Zentner portrayed that believably to me.

      I agree that this book seems like a Morris finalist more than a real Printz contender, despite my love for it. There were a few moments that seemed that would have been more deftly handled by a more experienced writer, but he can turn a phrase and I’m looking forward to more by him in the future!

  3. I liked the book but parts of it bothered me…enough that I left it off our Mock Printz list.

    And here is one more thing. Apparently teens don’t like snakes…because I have book talked this book probably ten times already this school year and no one has checked it out. Usually when I talk up a book I can entice someone to grab it. Not this one. There is something so weird about handling poisonous snakes in church that kids can’t relate.

    • Barbara Moon says

      I was surprised by the marketing emphasis on snakes – the title & the cover image of snakeskin give snake-handling more prominence than readers will find in the story.
      While both the theme of handling danger & the poisonous relationship between a father & son figure into the serpent motif, there were many other aspects of the storyline that carried more weight.

  4. My class is barely starting to read this book it’s actually really funny and its turning out to be a good book.


  1. […] Zentner. The Serpent King. School Library Journal blog. 3 stars. “I’m always intrigued by religious themed (or even slightly religious flavored) […]

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