City of Thieves was our July book club pick and I was really excited about reading this one because I’ve heard good things about it. Actually haven’t heard much about the book except that it’s good–oh, and that it is set in Russia.
City of Thieves is about a young man, Lev, who is trying to make his way on his own in Leningrad during the Nazis’ siege during World War II. Most of his family has fled the city or has already been claimed victim to the war, but he remains in the desolate city with a group of other misfits. One night he happens upon a dead German parachuter and while looting the soldier’s pockets, he is arrested. In prison, he meets and befriends Koyla who has been imprisoned for deserting the army. Lev and Koyla are given another chance at freedom by an army colonel if they complete a dangerous mission for him–finding a dozen eggs for his daughter’s wedding.
Lev and Koyla, upon their release, journey around Leningrad and across Russia in search of a dozen eggs. I could give you a laundry list of events that occur in the book during the boys’ mission, but Benioff explains it so well in the following passage:
“I don’t know.” Yes, it was a stupid cowardly response but I could not handle the morning’s peaks and valleys. One moment I thought I had a few minutes left to live; the next a sniper from Archangel was flirting with me. Was she flirting with me? The days had become a confusion of catastrophes; what seemed impossible in the afternoon was blunt fact by evening. German corpses fell from the sky; cannibals sold sausage links made from ground human in the Haymarket; apartment blocs collapsed to the ground; dogs became bombs; frozen soldiers became signposts; a partisan with half a face stood swaying in the snow, staring sad-eyed at his killers. I had no food in my belly, no fat on my bones, and no energy to reflect on this parade of atrocities” (212).
There is never a dull moment in the book; the story is intense and will keep you turning the pages to find out whether or not Lev and Koyla complete their mission to find the dozen eggs. But even though this is a mostly plot-driven novel, there is also a lot of tenderness and heart as Benioff fully describes the effect of the Nazi siege. Unfortunately I don’t know a ton about Russian history during WWII and Stalin’s reign, but this book was able to fill in some of those gaps. I wish that Benioff would have given a little more background to the politics and ideology in Russia at the time, but the other members of the bookclub really appreciated that this one wasn’t bogged down in heavy details. The main focus of the story is Lev and Koyla’s journey–not the convoluted mess behind the war and Russia’s political stance.
I would certainly recommend this book–it is an entertaining read and will have you gripping the book as you furiously turn to the next page. The boys are in their late teens/early twenties, so there is a lot of talk about sex and a little bit of language. This didn’t bother me like it might in some other books–seemed to fit seamlessly with their characters and the fact that in spite of everything they encounter and have to endure, they are just boys.
Why the 3.5 rating? While City of Thieves was a good book and I thoroughly enjoyed it, there isn’t going to be a whole lot that sticks with me other than some of the more gruesome events–like I said, very plot-driven. This isn’t to say that the characters are developed, because I think Benioff does a great job of developing the boys’ characters (would have liked to see some of the other minor characters a little more defined). Maybe it’s because of the length–only 258 pages? Can’t really put my finger on it, but it just didn’t have the bang and punch I was expecting. Don’t let that deter you, though–check it out for yourself. Benioff has a wonderful writing style and this book will give you a great (albeit small) perspective on Russia during the war.
Despite weeks on the Bestseller List, this is the only other review I found:
Charley from Bending Bookshelf