City of Thieves


David Benioff




Date Reviewed:

December 20, 2009

bout halfway through this book, I said to myself "Wow, this is really good! I wonder if Benioff has written any other books?" It turns out he has written another novel called The 25th Hour, I will definitely have to add that book to my wish list of books that I hope to read some day.

City of Thieves is set in Leningrad in 1944, when the city is besieged by the Nazi troops. The inhabitants of the city are starving, but still they hold out against the surrounding German army. One seventeen year old lad named Lev Benoiv is living in desperate circumstances - his mother and sister evacuated before the Germans had encircled the city, and his father was killed years earlier by the NKVD (Russia's secret police.) Lev is a Jew, and Russians hate Jews almost as much as they hate Nazis. A dead German paratrooper lands near the apartment where Lev and some friends live. They run out and search the body, but then the Russian authorities arrive and arrest Lev as a looter. The penalty for looting is execution, so when they haul Lev off to the Crosses prison, he expects to be shot the next morning.

As Lev is shivering in his dark cell, the authorities throw another prisoner in with him. It is a young soldier named Kolya. Kolya is accused of desertion from the Red Army, his execution is also expected at dawn. In the morning Lev and Kolya are brought before the colonel who commands the prison. The colonel explains that his daughter is getting married in one week, and that she needs to have a wedding cake - but how can anyone bake a cake without eggs? The colonel offers to spare them their executions if they can return in one week with one dozen eggs. Of course, since Leningrad is starving, the task is impossible. But Kolya and Lev readily accept the assignment, because the alternative is immediate execution.

Their ration cards are taken from them (which means they will doomed to starvation if they don't return with the eggs). Kolya and Lev take a quick tour of the beseiged Leningrad, and it is not a pretty situation. People are desperate for food, worn down from German artillery attacks, and freezing in the cold. Lev is desperate, but Kolya turns out to be recklessly optimistic. He is fearless in dangerous situations, and is confident in his own ability to survive.

It is hard to believe this novel is a lean 258 pages. It contains masterful characterizations, plenty of suspense and plot points, plus the tour of the devastated city. It has tragedy and lust and horror and brutality. Kolya turns out to be undauntingly brave, an endless talker, and a pretty good judge of human nature. He is a braggart that you can't help but like. Although he is merely a few years older than Lev, he acts much more worldly and experienced, sizing up dangerous situations and acting decisively.

The friendship that grows up between Kolya and Lev as they try to complete their mission is a terrific piece of characterization. Benioff has written an excellent book, I am glad that I read it.