When I was told that the two books going head to head that I would have to judge were The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner and Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys, my heart sank. These were both titles I had already read and absolutely loved. Both were in my top teen favorites of the year. And I’m far from alone in this opinion: both books made the top 10 YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults list as well. So, before I get to the grueling decision of which book moves forward, I’m going to share a few really strong elements of these books (also, since this is round 2, I’m not going to spend much time rehashing the plot). Hopefully, I’ll convince you to read both titles if you haven’t already!
Setting: Being historical fiction, setting in Salt to the Sea is obviously a very important element. It takes place in WWII, but with a focus on a little-known (but very large) disaster. Sepetys does an amazing job at really building this world and throwing the reader into this time period, and she does it using such minimal text. The chapters are no more than a few pages and the pace is non-stop. Yet, the action only adds to the setting rather than distract from it. The Serpent King is a contemporary novel that takes place in rural Tennessee. Zentner brings this southern town to life, and it’s fascinating to see how much these characters are a product of where they are from. So speaking of characters…
Characters: Both books feature alternating chapters between several characters (although The Serpent King is in 3rd person while Salt to the Sea is in 1st). In both books, the reader quickly cares about all the main characters. Both authors excelled in creating sets of unique, well-developed characters. From Joana, the young, selfless nurse in Salt to the Sea, to Travis, the quiet, lovable guy who would rather live in his fantasy books than the real world in The Serpent King, both these stories are filled with unforgettable characters.
Rip-Your-Heart-Out Factor: These are both stories that require tissues. Grief finds its way into both tales, and yet they each also deliver hope.
Okay, I’ve stalled long enough. It’s time to choose. *DUN DUN DUN* I’m going to have to go with my gut and call The Serpent King the winner. While both books are excellent, the fact that The Serpent King is Zentner’s debut is extra impressive. This book firmly cemented him as an author to watch.