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Monday, August 1, 2016

Review: 'The Serpent King'

The Serpent King
By Jeff Zentner
YA Contemporary
March 2016
Crown Books for Young Readers
ISBN: 978-0553524024

You know those books that are so good you don't want them to end? Add The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner.

The book covers the senior years of three friends -- Dill, whose father is a serpent-handling minister now in prison for having kiddie porn on his computer; Lydia, a force of nature with a fashion blog that has caught the attention of the big city fashionistas; and Travis, a big lug of a man-child who loves his fantasy books, wears a dragon pendant and carries a wooden staff.

The story takes turns with its centering on the three characters, but none of them are ever really left out. They are outcasts at school and their interactions with the bullies are documented, but thanks to Lydia the outcomes are not the usual slink-and-go-hide-in-the-bathroom.

Zentner also includes the home life of each friend. Dill's mother works long, menial hours and is broken in spirit and body. The few scenes with his father in prison show a wicked man who twists words to make everything all about him.

Travis's mother stays home and is still getting over the loss of his older brother, a Marine who died in service. His father also hasn't gotten over it and takes it out on both of them, especially after he's been drinking.

Lydia's parents are amazing. He's a dentist who decided to stay in his family's small town to protect his beloved daughter from the evils of a big-city life, and who helps the boys. Her mother would be the kindest woman in any suburb. They're the kind of parents who sip wine and read their books out on the enclosed porch while the three friends have their usual Friday movie night.

Dill, who loves music, does fear his family's heritage. He not only carries his father's name, and all the weight that carries in a small town, but also knows his grandfather went mad and died of grief after a snake killed his beloved daughter.  The sins of the father are a genuine burden. Both Lydia and Travis have online friends; one is honest and the other keeps major parts of everyday life hidden.

One of the highlights is when the three friends climb a railroad trestle to inscribe words important to them to commemorate their senior year. They know Lydia will go off to college and that the boys will stay in town to work and help their parents.

But life doesn't always turn out the way one thinks.

One of the great things about the novel is that there are events that make a reader think the worst is going to happen. Bad things do happen, but so do good things. And they feel real.  Zentner's characters are complex human beings with hopes, dreams and sorrows. They are well worth knowing.

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