Wednesday, April 2, 2014

City of Thieves: A Review

City of Thieves
Written by: David Benioff
Paperback: 319 pages
Publisher: Plume
Language: English
March 2009
Genre: Fiction

From the critically acclaimed author of The 25th Hour, a captivating novel about war, courage, survival — and a remarkable friendship that ripples across a lifetime.

During the Nazis’ brutal siege of Leningrad, Lev Beniov is arrested for looting and thrown into the same cell as a handsome deserter named Kolya. Instead of being executed, Lev and Kolya are given a shot at saving their own lives by complying with an outrageous directive: secure a dozen eggs for a powerful Soviet colonel to use in his daughter’s wedding cake. In a city cut off from all supplies and suffering unbelievable deprivation, Lev and Kolya embark on a hunt through the dire lawlessness of Leningrad and behind enemy lines to find the impossible.

By turns insightful and funny, thrilling and terrifying, City of Thieves is a gripping, cinematic World War II adventure and an intimate coming-of-age story with an utterly contemporary feel for how boys become men..


There is something about World War II literature that I really enjoy reading about. The fictional takes can be inspiring, heartbreaking, or funny as can the non-fictional contributions. Finn chose this book for this month’s book club. I knew about it a little as it apparently inspired the Last of Us videogame and I knew that David Benioff wrote the 25th hour and has been a screenwriter for Game of Thrones.

Set during the siege of Leningrad, Lev Beniov is on watch when he and his friends spy a frozen Nazi paratrooper falling from the sky. Caught looting the dead body after curfew Lev is thrown into prison fully expecting to be executed in the morning. With him in his cell is a handsome soldier accused of being a deserter named Kolya. They are brought before a high-ranking NKVD officer who makes them an offer they are in no position to refuse. Find a dozen eggs for his daughter’s wedding cake by the end of the week or no more ration cards.

Thus begins a coming-of-age story as the two young men embark on a futile quest to find a dozen eggs in a city that has been starving for a very long time, a city where there are no more childhood pets and the paste from books has been made into candy bars. Realizing they must venture outside the walls and into enemy territory the two men learn a lot about life, love, war, and growing up. It is funny and heartbreaking, poignant and absurd. This is Lev’s story.

Things I loved: The Siege of Leningrad was brutal. Though the Germans surrounded the city, they were never able to capture it. Of course this does not mean that its residents did not come out of the war unscathed. Millions of citizens and the soldiers hoping to protect it died from hunger, sickness, and the cold. So while ultimately a piece of fiction, Benioff asks you to imagine what it must have been like for Lev to live in his beloved Piter (short for St Petersburg) during the war. The streets weren’t safe as the NKVD roamed, but then again so did cannibals. And home wasn’t always safe either with the bomb raids. Bread was not much more than sawdust, my college diet of ramen noodles would have been a feast, and if you didn’t have a humor you may just break down and just go sit in a corner and wait for death. As much as there is humor in the book, it is far from light reading. Never forget that this is a World War II novel. There is heartbreak, there is horror, and there is despair. However, Benioff does a really good job at balancing both the serious and the lightheartedness. It’s a futile mission that the boys are on, but they don’t give up. My god the resilience of not just them, but Leningrad as a whole.

Kolya and Lev are two very different characters. Kolya is the charmer, the ladies’ man, who spends most of his time talking or thinking about sex (which got him into the trouble he is in), and sharing his experiences and life with Lev. Lev is quiet, angry, and always trying to prove something, but boy is he good at chess. Their banter is infectious though at times I felt like I was reading a WWII rumpus teen comedy. Granted with a lot of heavy moments thrown in between. It was hard to believe that these two were so cavalier in their conversations when right around the corner death awaits.

I liked Kolya. I know that some of the girls in our book club didn’t really care for him as they thought he was too cavalier, too much of a manipulative guy who really only did think about sex. I kept thinking about the situation and I feel like I understand Kolya. You either laugh and try to keep a decent attitude or you wind up like the kid in the chicken coop. Humor is his defensive mechanism, a way to make sure you don’t realize what your situation really is and go off screaming into the night. We do have moments with Kolya when we realize he is trying to be the rock for a lot of people. He whispers to his lovers making them forget, if but for a night, what the world is really like. He protects, He reflects, and he mourns (the dogs with the mines was particularly heartbreaking). Of course he does that all with snark and jokes.

I loved that despite the disaster upon disaster that they run into (reminders that it is indeed war), they keep going. You have to. The framework of the whole novel is great too. While I know that it is completely fictional I like that it opens up with a screenwriter named David wanting to know more about his grandfather’s childhood. ''A couple of things still don't make sense to me — '' Benioff persists after spending a week with his grandfather listening to his stories. ''You're a writer,'' answers his grandfather. ''Make it up.'' The next 250 pages of the book tell the story of “one week in 1942, the first week of the year, the week he met my grandmother, made his best friend, and killed two Germans.”

Things I didn’t love so much: Sometimes Kolya is such the ladies’ man and charmer that it a bit too larger than life and occasionally takes you out of the story, or at least it did for me.

Admittedly you might have to be in the right mood for the book as well. It does take place during WWII so understand that while there is humor, it can also be quite heavy.

Buy or Borrow: Buy. Completely worth the read. Thank you Finn for the recommendation.

Part of: Stand Alone

Also Recommended: The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, and the Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

4 out of 4 happy bibliosnark bookmarks 

1 comment:

Daniel B. said...

Great review. I stumbled across this book last year, and I loved it.