Since it’s only a very few days since my last post, that really should tell you everything you need to know of my opinion of ‘The Serpent King’! It’s been quite a while since I read a YA title that had me staying up far later than I should at night, as I simply could not put this down.
Told from the viewpoints of 3 friends, this is such a powerful story. Simply told, but all the more effective for that. We first hear from Dill. His father, a former preacher with a penchant for using deadly snakes in his services, is in prison, leaving Dill and his mother with huge debts & living in terrible poverty. Dill has a great talent as a musician, but feels doomed to be stuck in his small, southern town. Lydia loves fashion, and writes her own pretty successful blog. Her life has always been more privileged, her father is a dentist, her mother an estate agent. Lydia is smart and sharp, but has few friends in her home town, as she dreams of leaving its confines to spread her wings. Travis is described as a big lad with a gentle soul, and something of an obsession for a series of fantasy novels. He uses these as a way to escape from his home life which is dominated by his often drunk and violent father. These three characters are firm friends, and we follow them over the course of their final year in school as they make those momentous decisions that will determine the paths of the rest of their lives.
Told from all three viewpoints, we often hear the same incident from alternative characters. This might sound as if it would slow the book down, but in fact it does the exact opposite. I felt so invested in the lives of these three, that I wanted to know how each of them reacted. As the story unfolds, Dill is convinced that staying in town and working all hours (like his mother) is his only option, perhaps not realising quite how gifted a musician he is. He is denying his feelings for Lydia, which may extend beyond just friendship, as well as denying himself the opportunity to explore the wider world. One of my favourite parts of the story is the surprise that Lydia arranges for Travis. It felt just a little contrived, but was touching at the same time. The reader, I think, cannot fail to feel that they would love to be that good friend who judges perfectly a gift of a situation for another. Denying his true desire to leave the town, combined with the stress of his home life leaves Dill spiralling into a deep depression. But tragedy strikes (I cried) and leaves him utterly bereft. Finding a way to get through this terrible, life-changing, time sees the friends change in ways they could not foresee.
The role of fathers features very strongly in this book. Dill’s is in prison for having child pornography on his computer, Dill’s relationship with him is pretty complicated, as his father’s faith is so extreme, it leaves Dill feeling uncomfortable and unconvinced, even though at points he tries really hard to hold on to his faith. Travis’s father is a bullying, violent alcoholic, who makes his disappointment in his son entirely plain. Lydia’s father, bu contrast is shown as generous, kind and understanding. The mothers in the book, however, aren’t shown in such detail I don’t think – more 2-d than the 3-d fathers. This is not a criticism as such, more an observation. It’s my feeling that mothers often feature more sympathetically in YA novels, with fathers often just being a supporting act if they are there.
This is a fantastic read. We really do get right inside the three main wonderful characters. It’s emotional, and we really feel the genuine angst of these vital, life-changing events. This is a stunning debut – can’t wait to read more by this author. Read it!!