David Benioff is no stranger to success. As a screenplay writer, he has several notable movies under his belt, including the 25th Hour (adapted from his own novel), Troy, The Kite Runner, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. As good as some of these are, his best work remains bound between the pages of City of Thieves, an unlikely darkly humorous and adventurous coming of age story.
Set during the siege of Leningrad in World War II, City of Thieves follows the story of an awkward and self-deprecating teenage boy, Lev Beniov, the son of a Jewish poet who was disappeared by Stalinist purists. The story unfolds quickly, after Lev is arrested for carelessly lifting a Swastika-emblazoned knife from the body of a frozen German parachuter.
The punishment for looting in Leningrad is death.
While waiting to learn his fate, Lev unwillingly meets an unlikely comrade — Kolya, a handsome young and reckless Slav, who is scheduled to be executed for desertion despite his insistence of being innocent. Lev rightly doesn't trust the overconfident solider at first and would prefer to have nothing to do with him. He has no choice.
Their lives are temporarily spared by a colonel, assuming they can find a dozen eggs in a city where boiled book bindings has become a food staple. The eggs are meant to be used for his daughter's wedding cake. If they find them, they will be set free and their ration cards returned.
For the first few page turns, you might wonder if you picked up the wrong book or if I somehow led you astray. Starvation may be a common thread, but it doesn't make an engaging story. While there is an ever-present challenge of deprivation, the book quickly turns into a spellbinding adventure out of a dying city and into German-occupied Russia.
"The loneliest sound in the world is other people making love." — Lev Beniov, City of Thieves
While calling City of Thieves a coming of age story is accurate, it doesn't feel right. However, during their brief respites and uninterrupted walks Lev and Kolya develop a kinship, with Lev looking up to his more experienced companion. Their conversations are enriching as they talk about writing, chess, love, and how many days the human body can go without taking a shit.
The contrast between the two is memorable, with Lev being uncertain and Kolya being intuitive, bordering on foolhardy. Kolya is surefooted enough, in fact, that his alleged desertion becomes as implausible as his story of what "really" happened on his way to rejoin his brothers.
There is something for everyone in City of Thieves: suspense, mystery, action, intelligence, and the illusions that this story was cut from truth. And given the painstaking accuracy as well as forward that retells of a conversation that Benioff had with his grandfather, many people incorrectly believe that The City of Thieves is based on a story of cobbled together facts much like The Book Thief.
Benioff, however, dispelled this notion during a New York Magazine interview, telling the journalist that the story was 100 percent fiction contrary to what many reviewers, including Entertainment Weekly thought.
City Of Thieves By David Benioff Steals An 8.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.
Benioff is a master of the craft, with an ending meant to satisfy and disappoint at the same time. It's frequently called out by fans to be made into a movie and plenty of critics have noted it reads like one. With as many projects as Benioff carries at one time, it's best not to wait as he races ahead. This book might even tell you why he does.
"Talent must be a fanatical mistress. ... She is the most thrilling evening of your week, but some day she will leave you for good. One night, after she's been gone for years, you will see her on the arm of a younger man, and she will pretend not to recognize you." — from City of Thieves
Amazon carries City of Thieves: A Novel. It's also available for the Kindle.
You can also find an audio version, City Of Thieves: A Novel, on iTunes. It's a brilliant unabridged version read by Ron Perlman.