Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Serpent King (Jeff Zentner)

Jeff Zentner is dangerous.

If you've already heard about The Serpent King—and I'm sure anyone with even a mild interest in the goings-on in YA has, because this book is everywhere—then you probably think I'm talking about how this book is an emotional rollercoaster, a kiss on the lips from your high school crush and a punch in the stomach from your high school bully. That is, it leaves you warm and gooey—vulnerable—before it smears you all over the place. I saw a review of this novel from Adam Silvera in which he says “This book will punch you in the heart. In a good way. A punch to the heart isn't usually a good idea, but it is here.”

Which is totally true. Our story centers on Dill, Lydia, and Travis, three high school seniors in small-town Tennessee. Dill is the son of disgraced ex-preacher of a cult church; Lydia is a fashion blogger social media maven stifled by the trappings of her decidedly unmetropolitan hometown; Travis is a quiet, nerdy type who likes epic fantasy series and avoiding his abusive dad. We follow them through the journey—as epic as The Odyssey—through their last year together, navigating college applications, family shame, and the release of the final Game of Thrones Bloodfall novel. It's a recipe for tragedy!

And tragic it gets—as well as funny, bitter, frustrating, heartwarming, and just about every other emotion you have probably felt in your entire life. It’s astounding that Zentner encapsulates the idea of being a high school senior in one novel, and he does it so well.

The Serpent King has a lot of depth: depth of feeling and depth of character are two of Zentner's strengths. Something that frustrates me about many books is their reliance on easy tactics to invoke feelings: a teenager has cancer? You'd better cry. A small child loses a parent? If you aren't crying, you're a bad person. The emotions you're being asked to feel in these scenarios are shallow at best--they're the idea of the feeling. Zentner doesn't pull such cheap tricks--the emotions the book provokes are genuine and legitimate, anchored to genuine and legitimate characters.

Rarely do I read a book told in alternating perspectives where that setup feels so compelling. Usually, I lean into one voice over another, favoring one character’s narration, growing impatient with the switches in perspective; however, this novel’s use of the tactic feels justified, because the voices are interesting and varied enough to create a multiplicity. This of course is what helps give the novel its depth—we’re seeing high school not just through one set of outcast eyes, but three. I was amazed by how quickly I sank into the characters of this story, how I craved each of their narrative perspectives even as I read them.

But none of that is why Jeff Zentner is a dangerous author—sure, it’s impressive that all of the aforementioned stuff is true, but it’s not reason to label him a danger. No, the reason I’m so terrified of Zentner—terrified and envious—is his intelligence. He’s a careful writer, one who is very aware, and that awareness sparkles on every page. Lydia, for example, wants nothing more than to leave her small town; she passes judgment on her friends for not wanting the same. The average writer would probably leave it at that, but Zentner knows it’s problematic: he has other characters in the novel tell her how rude she’s being. Yes! Teenage love is the cheesiest, most melodramatic of all love, and rather than bogging himself down in cornstarch, Zentner has the characters acknowledge how goofy they sound when they talk about their feelings.

It’s this sort of self-awareness that really let me fall in love with the book: the author is far too brilliant to let the trappings of his “genre” (or age group or whatever we’re calling YA these days) hinder him from telling a story. Even in the moments when the novel heads for traditional problem territory (i.e., terrible parents, death, heartbreak), Zentner keeps his writing fresh and his characters grounded. Dialogue and monologue never strayed into the maudlin or the meaningless—I held my breath, terrified that this scene or that would be the one where the book crumbled, but he pulled it off again and again.

Everything in the novel works toward this awareness, even the multiple perspectives—because we’re not spending time in just one character’s head, we have opportunities for other characters to see through their bullshit. It was such a gratifying experience to read a story like this one, one which almost seems to slap the characters across the face to remind them that they’re part of the real world, not a story at all. The payoff is immense; this book is more delightful than the word “delightful” can express.

The Serpent King dazzled me with its complexity and nuance, itself almost a serpent writhing and sparkling in the sun, mesmerizing me, rearing back to lunge and sink in its fangs.

My rating: 5/5