Sunday, March 7, 2010

"City of Thieves" by David Benioff

Summary: During the German siege of the Russian city of Leningrad during World War II, a young Russian, Lev, is arrested for looting a dead German soldier and finds himself thrown together with Kolya, a young soldier arrested for desertion.  Together, they are given a mission by a high-ranking colonel: find a dozen eggs for his daughter's wedding cake, and the boys can go free.  Together Lev and Kolya set out on an absurd journey in a tragic time.

Musings:  The siege of Leningrad is one part of the history of World War II that I knew little about.  However, it's the perfect setting for Benioff's blend of lightness and tragedy in City of Thieves.  During the book's setting, citizens are equally in danger from starvation, their own army, and the enemy's army.  In times like these, with no chance of peaceful normality, the absurd is the only thing that makes sense.  So while Lev and Kolya's mission is inane in a time of war, it also makes perfect sense, and the boys accept it as thus.

Benioff is skilled as creating dramatic juxtaposition so that moments of terror and abject cruelty are interwoven with comic moments such as Kolya's obsession with sex or Lev's attempts to woo a female sniper.  Terrible things happen--and Benioff does not brush over them--but he also accepts and celebrates that humankind is inherently hopeful and irreverent.  Because of this, the reader is carried along in a book that does not succumb to one overwhelming emotion or another, but rather recognizes the place for many emotions within the human experience.

Although Lev is the protagonist, Kolya is the standout character of the book.  His arrogance, confidence, and optimism add humor, and he is the catalyst for Lev's growth.  Kolya sets himself up as invincible, and although later events prove that wrong, it's almost impossible to see him as anything but unassailable.  I loved the development of the boys' relationship throughout the book.

I am sometimes wary of books based on wars because the immense amount of tragedy can be overpowering.  However, Benioff struck the right tone and created such appealing characters that the overarching feeling in City of Thieves is of hope and survival. 


  1. I just bought this so I'm glad to hear it's a good one!

  2. I hope you enjoy it! It was such a great balance of happy and sad, funny and serious.