City of Thieves by David Benioff

Summary: When seventeen-year-old Lev is caught looting the body of a German soldier during the Nazi siege of Leningrad, he expects to be immediately executed. Instead, he and a solider accused of deserting the Red Army are sent on a strange mission: find a dozen eggs for an officer’s daughter’s wedding by Thursday or die.

Review: City of Thieves is not a book for the faint of heart.  The siege of Leningrad left the citizens desperate, and many were willing to resort to anything to survive their cold and hunger.  A black market flourished where country farmers might come and sell their food to supplement the city ration cards, but those too poor to trade or buy could see themselves with no options short of murder or even cannibalism.  Benioff portrays this dark world with clarity and understanding; he offsets it grimness mainly with the character of Kolya, a nineteen-year-old soldier who charms his way through the city and straight into the readers’ hearts.
The boy is obsessed with sex; he likes to tease Lev about his virginity and talk about his own conquests.  His speech is not overly graphic, however, and his stories of how he has slept with famous ballerinas and become an expert lover provide a lighthearted counterpoint to the rest of the action.  In a time where there is little joy and little hope, even a prudish reader can understand that Koyla is only trying to find happiness where he can and will like the young solider either in spite of or because of his boasting.

Unfortunately, Kolya’s carefree attitude and personal bravery cannot change the course of the war.  As the book nears its close, readers may find themselves expecting that things might turn out okay after all; they would be mistaken.  Benioff has crafted a brilliant but nihilistic work that must mirror how many inhabitants of Leningrad felt about the world. Benioff’s writing and his insight make City of Thieves a beautiful book, but his philosophy makes it ugly.  Definitely a recommended read.

Published: 2008