After finishing Game of Thrones, I was totally in book-hangover mode. I wanted to read something completely different but it had to be completely good, too. With that in mind, I chose City of Thieves by David Benioff and was not disappointed. And yet, I often wonder if it is worthwhile to write a review of a book that’s been out for a while. City of Thieves has been out since ’08, so I considered skipping a review. However, it is so good, it’s worth it!
It’s fiction but it has a sort of non-fiction feel to it. Memoir-ish, I guess. Set in WWII Russia’s St Petersburg, the story centers around the journey…that is survival…well I guess journey and survival and friendship of two young men. One, Koyla, is a deserter from the Red Army. Or maybe he’s not. Or maybe he is. The other is Lev, the 17 year old son of a Jewish executed poet. It is Lev who gives voice to the story and his not quite grown up and not quite boy perspective, somewhat jaded by the incredibly harsh realities of war and Russian winter, make the story funny in places, unforgettably cold and truly beautiful in others.
The two are given a unique opportunity to escape execution for their crimes (desertion and stealing from a dead German soldier’s body) by procuring a dozen eggs for a locally powerful leader who needs them so his wife can prepare a cake for their daughter’s wedding. There is a stark contrast between a city so starved that people sell ‘library candy’ made from the glue in books and the comparative luxury of a wedding that includes a cake. Cannibals lure in victims, the dead are pretty much everywhere, and the German planes fly above the city, bombing random buildings. Life is remarkably cheap.
And yet, it isn’t at all cheap. It seems to be, at least in Lev’s telling, precious. Despite all the starvation and daily facing potential death from one of a dozen angles, he is still a young man who worries about whether or not he will ever be brave, the fact that his nose is too big and his shyness around women. Amid an overwhelming mass of inhumanity that would dishearten most anyone, the less-than-jovial Lev seems to have not lost his humanity despite the fact that he certainly isn’t an optimist. One of my favorite scenes is an exchange between Lev and another character after one of their traveling companions has been killed by a German soldier.
“Markov’s not important,” she said. “I’m not important. You’re not important. Winning the war, that’s the only important thing.”
“No,” I said, “I disagree. Markov was important. So am I and so are you. That’s why we have to win.”
Lev’s traveling companion and friend is Koyla and, in contrast to Lev, he is nearly always up beat, full of energy and confidence. His bravado both saves them and puts them in harm’s way multiple times and his charm is an excellent counterpoint to Lev’s less sparkling personality. But there is more to Koyla than just comic relief or counterpoint and by the end of the book, I really liked this character even though I started out thinking he was an irritating jerk.
Every so often, there are passages that will stick with you for both the image created in the mind and the sheer beauty of perception. In one scene, Lev and his companions witness the burning of a little town:
“The fire was silent, the little houses collapsing into the flames without complaint, flocks of sparks rising to the sky. At a distance it seemed beautiful, and I thought it was strange that powerful violence is often so pleasing to the eye…”
I really recommend this book strongly. It is well written without a single extra or un-useful word in the entire thing. However, it is punctuated with violence so it is good to go into it knowing this is no light hearted coming-of-age story. After all, it is WWII Russia, so it wasn’t ever going to be a comedy.
Forgive the ubiquitous plug for the local bookstore, but I would never have read this book if it hadn’t been suggested by one of the people at the small indie bookstore in town. I’m certain that the most complex formula Amazonianite programmers could come up with would never have considered this book for me. But a real person who knows me did.