I’ll be honest neither of these books knocked my socks off. They were both good, but not “holy crap I want to share these with everyone I know” good. Here’s a bit about both of them and then my decision about which one should move forward is at the end.
The Serpent King takes place in a very small town in the south. It’s a town named after a prominent KKK member. The story is told from three different point of view: Dill, Lydia and Travis. The story focuses the most around Dill, but all three characters are developed. Dill’s father was a preacher who led a signs ministry, where snakes were handled and poison drank during church services. Dill’s father also had a fondness for child porn and got caught and sent to jail. Dill’s statements on the witness stand were key to why his father ended up in jail. Both of Dill’s parents blame him for his father being in jail and having a father in jail doesn’t bode well for surviving high school. Luckily, Dill found Lydia and Travis.
Lydia runs a wildly successful fashion blog and can’t wait to leave town and go to NYU and leave small town closed mindedness behind. She often struggles with who she is online and who she is in real life. Travis and Dill have never been mentioned on her blog, because they’re not fashionable. Lydia is very witty, intelligent and an amazing friend. She has a warm loving family. But she often struggles to see things from Dill and Travis’s perspectives.
Travis was my favorite character. He is a big kindhearted guy with a sweet mom, dead brother and a mean alcoholic father. He is obsessed with Bloodfall, a book series that is eerily similar to The Song of Ice and Fire series. Travis spends time on Bloodfall discussion boards and even starts regularly texting with a girl on there.
The Serpent King takes the reader through the three friends’ senior year, from the high points to the darkest lows. It looks at how friends and love can carry you through the dark times and how following your dreams can take you to new places, but leaving your past behind can be hard.
Our Chemical Hearts is not a pukey romance. Everything isn’t wrapped up in a bow and it’s not all warm and fuzzy. I think what really grabbed me about this book was the ending and its portrayal of love, contrasting the thought of being “in love” versus loving someone long term, and then loving someone for who they are versus who you want to love them into being.
We have Henry, a pretty deep, smart, quirky guy, and then there’s Grace, who arrives at the beginning of the school year. Grace is deep, smart and quirky, but she has also gone through major trauma. She was one thing in former life and now after the tragic death of her boyfriend she’s transformed into someone different. Grace and Henry fall in love, but is Henry in love with the girl he thinks Grace used to be, or the current version of Grace? And is Grace in love with Henry or with her ex boyfriend? Along with Grace and Henry we have Henry’s two besties Lola and Murray, and Henry’s older (wiser?) sister Sadie, who help Henry on his journey and try to bestow wisdom whether wanted or not on him.
The backdrop for this is senior year of high school. Grace and Henry have been assigned to co-edit the school newspaper, which is way to leave a lasting mark on their school. I liked that there a lot of strong female characters in this book and they do have their own stories they work to stay true to themselves in spite of their relationships.
Our Chemical Hearts has notes of Paper Towns, Eleanor & Park and All the Bright Places, but is still it’s own story. It’s not the best book ever written and I think some of the movies and books regularly alluded to are bits that bring in adult readers versus teens. It was a YA book I actually wanted to finish to see where the author was going with her story, but not something I needed to read closely. I did like the realistic flawedness (making up words I know) of Grace. Also – a refreshing diverse set of characters and they didn’t feel tokenish or that they were used to check off boxes.
Which title comes out on top? This was a really hard decision because these books are kind of similar with the group of friends in each story and the coming of age elements. I think teens would eat up Our Chemical Hearts, but The Serpent King is more a original story and I think exposes teens to small town and religious perspectives that don’t show up in a lot of stories, plus Lydia is a kick ass bisexual female character. Winner: The Serpent King.