The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

“The Serpent King” has been on my #TBRList for a long time, pretty much since it was released. I started it on the 12th and had finished it by the 15th. I devoured it.

It’s the perfect book to review after my blog update as the novel follows three high school seniors, Dill, Lydia, and Travis, throughout their last year. In a lot of ways, it is a story about growing up, becoming your own person, entering a new stage. But it abandons the tired tropes of a young adult realizing they are perfect the way they are and that no one can tell them otherwise, resulting in stagnation instead of growth. These seniors don’t settle for what they are, they grow, they blossom. This is particularly evident in Lydia, who starts off as something of a lovable, bratty, know-it-all, but comes to realize that she is narrow-minded and unwilling to look beyond the surface.

Dill and Travis have dark and difficult backgrounds. Dill’s story especially impacted me. As a Christian, I was fascinated and horrified by a glimpse into this world of belief that requires drinking poison, handling snakes, and excusing your pastor of heinous sin as proof of your faith in Jesus.

I appreciated the honest way that Jeff Zentner dealt with this sect of Christianity. It was plain that there were people who hid behind serving Jesus as a way of getting away with abusing power, and there were also people who choose to be blind to reality because they were desperate, but there was also Dill.

Dill’s struggle with faith was what gripped me so deeply on my first read.

He glanced at the peeling white Calvary Baptist Church up the street from his house. He squinted to read the sign out of habit. “No Jesus, No Peace. Know Jesus, Know Peace.”

What if you know Jesus but have no peace? Does that mean the sign is wrong, or does that mean you don’t know Jesus quite as well as you think?

Dill hadn’t been raised to consider either a particularly good outcome.

While I haven’t asked those exact words, the feeling behind those questions have been screamed in my mind and soul many a time. I enjoyed going along with Dill as he struggled to make his faith his own and figure out what exactly he believed about God.

To find that brutal honesty about faith, about anything, in a novel is soothing, even in it’s acknowledgement of pain and confusion. It reminds the reader that despite the doubts, fears, heartache, anger, whatever emotion and experience they are going through, that they are not alone.

With all three of his characters, Mr. Zentner does an excellent job of capturing what they are feeling and allowing the reader to wrestle with the questions that were raised, instead of telling us what to think. For the characters, the look into a world that we often like to pretend doesn’t exists, and for Dill’s struggle with God, I highly recommend this book. Those are the great strengths of this novel.

One weakness that I noticed was structure.

This may be a particular challenge of the genre, but several of the scenes, especially in the middle, seemed aimless. Interesting filler, but the writing was not really moving along the plot (which was less compelling than it’s characters).

That’s not to say that there weren’t threads woven throughout the whole novel. There were. The church sign in the above quote is as much of a character as anyone with it’s changing messages and Dill’s response to them. But I think the book would have been tighter if some more thought had been put into how each scene contributed to the plot.

I’d give it a 4 out of 5. It’s characters and style are powerful enough to overlook whatever structure weaknesses might be there. I’m looking forward to reading his next book, due to come out in March of 17.

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