A gorgeously written and compelling bromance set during the siege of Leningrad during World War II.
The narrator, Lev, has been caught looting the body of a German paratrooper. Terrified, he waits in his cell for execution at dawn. His cellmate is Kolya, a soldier awaiting the same fate – his crime is desertion but he doesn’t seem too worried. His optimism is rewarded in the morning, when the two young men are taken, not to the firing squad, but to a well-placed NKVD colonel, who wants a dozen eggs for his daughter’s wedding cake.
He sets them free, but ensures their mind is on their task by taking their ration cards, without which no one can survive for long in the cut-off and foodless city:
‘You bring me the eggs by sunrise Thursday, you get them back. You don’t, well, you’ve got all of January to eat snow, and there won’t be any cards waiting for you in February, either. That’s assuming one of my men doesn’t find you and kill you before then, and my men are very good at that.’
‘They just can’t find eggs,’ said Kolya.
Out into freezing, starving Leningrad Lev and Kolya go, Lev despondent, Kolya grabbing the slim chance with both hands. The eggs are in one way a MacGuffin; they are just the quest-goal that gives our boys a chance to tour Leningrad and see the depths that starving, desperate people will sink to.
On the other hand, no other food product is quite as “easy” to get as eggs…they just need to find a chicken. They soon must make their way into the devastated countryside on the chance of a chicken farm, where the focus expands from the effect of the German invasion on Leningrad to its effect on the peasants outside the city too.
I’ve read books about the seige of Leningrad before, and there’s no real polite or tactful way to put this…300 fictional (though based on fact) pages of people starving or freezing to death or struggling to not do so gets old pretty quickly. By giving the pair a quest, Benioff drives the narrative in a way that is utterly enthralling, and his two bickering characters, “half in love with each other”, are full of life and conflict and are a joy to follow, flawed and charming and real – as is the third member of their party, joining them about halfway through.
From that point on I couldn’t put it down (before that, it was pretty hard to put down too). I love character-driven books, I hate books solely about characters without plot, and City of Thieves is a character-driven narrative with adventure and romance and tension – lots and lots of actual plot.
Now, there are certain conventions in this type of narrative (genre fiction often gets lambasted as being formulaic but so is narrative fiction in many respects) which makes the general plot, in particular Lev’s journey from coward to hero, or boy to man, or however else you want to characterise his coming of age, predictable, and which makes the way it ends almost inevitable, but even knowing it’s coming, it’s affecting.
David Benioff is a screenwriter, and the experience shows. He’s also working on the adaption of Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire into a HBO series. Hey, David, tell George to get back to work, the series ain’t done. Here’s a Q&A with NY Magazine. I think they read a different book to me (what twist? I can’t be the only person who saw that ending coming. Also, of course the grandfather at the beginning was fictional, what planet do these people live on?). And another article which gratitiously works in a Harry Potter mention but is interesting nonetheless.
Interested? Buy it from Fishpond.com.au, Australia’s biggest online bookstore. All their book prices are guaranteed better than Amazon and they do free delivery for orders over $50.