Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #122: City of Thieves by David Benioff

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City of Thieves is about many things, but at it’s core it’s about friendship. It’s wartime, and circumstances thrust Lev and Kolya, two young men who are nothing alike, together in search of a dozen eggs for a wedding cake. This mission is the only reason they were kept alive, and if they fail they’ll probably get the death they had coming to them originally.

Benioff uses this set-up to take Lev and Kolya on a journey that brings them places, and introduces them to people, they never would’ve thought they’d come across. Before long, it stops being about the mission and starts being about these two surviving and growing together.

Eventually, their minds turn back towards what they were sent out together to do, but it’s mostly just out of obligation, as well as the fact they happen to luck into a situation where they have a change of completing this fool’s missions of theirs.

Likewise, love is also brought into the fold, and yet it never moves above second billing. The only love Benioff really cares about is the brotherly love between two young men who, to their surprise and chagrin, fast become friends.

Which makes the ending seem like even more of an insult to the reader. I won’t spoil it for you but, suffice it to say, everything turns out to have all been for naught. All Lev gets out of his time with Kolya is the woman who would go on to become his wife.

And that’s all that’s keeping me from giving City of Thieves the 5 it deserved up until that point. Your mileage may vary, but I’ll never forgive Beinoff for that damned ending.

 

Travis Smith’s blog, containing this review, as well as others, photography, and more, can be found here.

iamnothamlet’s #CBR5 Review #14: City of Thieves by David Benioff

Cannonball 14

 

A man (who may be a fictionalized version of the author) summons up the temerity to finally ask his Russian emigre grandfather about his experiences during the war. What follows is an unbelievable tale of adventure, friendship, love, life, death, and the impossible.

Arrested as a looter during the siege of Leningrad, 17-year-old Lev Beniov is spared the typical punishment of summary execution. Instead he and his fellow prisoner, a Red Army deserter named Kolya, are presented to a higher-up in the state police and tasked with an impossible assignment. The higher-up’s daughter is to be married at the end of the week, and bride’s mother needs a dozen eggs to bake a wedding cake. Cabinets are bare all over Leningrad, and the idea of finding a dozen eggs strikes both Lev and Kolya as preposterous. But seeing as the alternative is death, the two set out on their improbable adventure.

The rest of the novel follows a fairly conventional pattern for a picaresque novel, as Lev and Kolya journey across Russia and encounter a wide variety of eccentric and unusual characters. What raises the novel above the others which use this familiar structure is the relationship between Lev and Kolya. Mismatched from the outset, the reserved, inexperienced Lev and the garrulous, charming Kolya quickly endear themselves to each other.

Beniov’s writing is graceful and pleasurable to read, but his story unfortunately does quite often revert to form. Characters seem to behave and even occasionally die they way they do simply because the plot calls for it. Still, even where the turns of the plot are obvious and contrived, Beniov’s prose can make them moving and meaningful.

faintingviolet’s #CBR5 review #5 : City of Thieves by David Benioff

City of Thieves is the definition of a great Cannonball Read find (thanks Katsings!). I think it’s safe to say that the consensus around the Cannonball is that author David Benioff has the goods. Benioff  also has the potential to be a bit of Pajiba favorite, being the executive producer/show runner of Game of Thrones, and writer of 25th Hour – both the novel and the screenplay – and the screenplay for The Kite Runner, although I haven’t seen this one yet,  I hear good things. But back to the point – City of Thieves is a classic coming of age story filled with some rather un-classic aspects: cannibals, suspense, cross-dressers, romance and torture set against a historically accurate picture of Leningrad in 1942.

City of Thieves opens with a writer asking his grandfather to tell him about his experiences during World War II.  The narrator knows that his grandfather, “the knife fighter” killed two Germans before he was eighteen. After relenting, Lev begins to tell his story to his grandson, talking openly for the first time about his childhood, coming to America and sex. Mostly though he talks about a two week period in 1942 when he met his best friend, the woman that would become his wife and killed those two Germans.

Lev’s story begins in and around Leningrad during the first winter of the German siege during World War II. Our hero is a seventeen year old virgin living alone after his mother and sister fled the city for the seemingly safer countryside. Too young for the Red Army, Lev does all the other jobs available to him, including being on his building’s firefighting squad. It’s from his position on the rooftop during the nightly bombings that Lev sees the falling German trooper who would so drastically change his path.

Lev is arrested for looting the corpse of the dead German, under martial law this is a crime punishable by death, but he is instead arrested and placed in a cell with a handsome friendly deserter named Kolya. Kolya’s crime is also grounds for execution, he is a deserter of the Red Army, and that’s what they expect come morning. However in a twist of fate they are given a chance to save their own lives, all they have to do is find a dozen eggs for a powerful colonel’s daughter’s wedding cake.

A dozen eggs in a city cut off from supplies, a city which is starving to death – is a ludicrous and impossible task, one which takes our new friends far into German occupied territory, through the bitter cold of winter and countless adventures and atrocities. While the description of the plot seems dark and depressing it’s also important to note that the leads approach each event with a degree of gallows humor which keeps the book light for the reader.

This review is cross-posted.