City of Thieves: A Novel
by David Benioff
A review by Chris Bolton
There's danger inherent in waiting too long for an author's next book. As with rollercoasters, the higher you go, the farther you must drop. Anticipation is often a prime setup for disappointment, and the longer one anticipates a book from a favorite writer, the greater the descent if it fails. In the case of Scott Smith's The Ruins, I waited 13 years and was duly rewarded. With David Benioff's City of Thieves, I only had to wait four years, and it paid off just as nicely.
Set during the Germans' brutal siege of Leningrad in World War II, City of Thieves is narrated by Lev Beniov, a seventeen-year-old Jew struggling to survive a hard winter in the midst of an unbreakable German blockade, nightly bombing raids, and starvation so rampant that there are no squirrels or cats to be found anywhere (and people have gone missing, too). When he's caught looting the body of a dead German parachutist, Lev is thrown into prison and expects to be executed by morning. He isn't prepared to be summoned -- along with his older, wiser, far more confident cell mate, Kolya -- by a Russian army colonel who gives them one chance to survive: find a dozen eggs for his daughter's wedding cake.
The impossible mission sends Lev and Kolya on a harrowing, surreal, and surprisingly funny odyssey through a land ravaged by war, where they will encounter the best and worst that humanity has to offer in the face of unimaginable hardship. In time-honored "buddy" tradition, Kolya turns out to be Lev's polar opposite: humorous where Lev is straight-laced, sexually experienced where Lev is virginal, and fearless where Lev is timid. They are, in other words, a perfect mismatch, and it is the clash of these personalities that propels the novel as much as any development in the plot.
Although he claimed otherwise in my interview for Powells.com, the structure of Benioff's novel aligns so precisely with the classic Hollywood three-act screenwriting paradigm that the story sails smoothly, effortlessly along, with few digressions. The reader may be left wishing for more detours just to enjoy the characters a little longer, but certainly won't have trouble turning those pages as quickly as her fingers can manage.
So many historical war stories are epic in length and scope that it's surprising to find City of Thieves come in at a lean 258 pages. But Benioff is such a talented storyteller that the reader never feels slighted. He turns the focus of the story inward, making it personal rather than monumental. The result is a rare novel of WWII that doesn't seem to be reaching to encompass the entire world in its canvas, but merely tells one human being's riveting story in a compelling, unforgettable manner.