City of Thieves by David Benioff

#BeatTheBacklist book 5
2017 book 5

Format: Print (hardcover)
Length: 258
Published: 2008

I love twisty, complicated stories with way too many characters.  My husband does not.  But he humors me by watching Game of Thrones with me and he got hooked despite himself.  I love GoT (and him) so much that I don’t even get too terribly annoyed by having to pause every 30 seconds to remind him of a character’s significance or to help him tell Rob Stark from John Snow from Theon Greyjoy (because all white boys look alike).  When I do get annoyed, though, I usually just tell him to wait until he watches the Behind the Episode feature to have it all spelled out.  This add on is a really nice feature for viewers who haven’t read the books or who just like to know about the show’s writers’ interpretations of events in the book and show.  One of the writers who often provides commentary during the Behind the Episode segments is David Benioff.  He’s the very handsome one.

A few months ago I made a new bookish friend.  We got talking about books, of course, and she recommended City of Thieves by David Benioff.  Once the Game of Thrones connection was made in my head I wanted to read this book. I didn’t even care what it was about.  In case you were wondering, though, it is not about dragons.

What It’s About…

The story is presented as a recollection of David’s grandfather’s experience during the WWII siege of Leningrad.  I don’t know if the narrator is actually David Benioff or just shares his name.  I don’t know if the events related (or some version of them) actually occurred.  I hope not.  But whether the account is real or imagined, it is riveting both in its details and in the style of its telling.

Lev Beniov is coming of age in the city of Leningrad, called Piter by locals, during the German siege.  He is frightened and starving, but also craving adventure and a chance to prove his manhood.  He is gawky and adolescent and horny.  He is seventeen.

One night Lev watches a dead German paratrooper float to the street below his apartment building and, along with three friends, goes to do what any reasonable person would do during a years long siege – loot his corpse. Unfortunately, the police arrive as they are stripping the Nazi of his belongings and Lev is captured.  The sentence for looting or any other infraction, no matter how small, is execution.  There is hardly food enough for law abiding citizens.  The city cannot afford to house and feed criminals.  So, all crimes receive the penalty of death.  Lev is a dead man.  Yet, somehow he is not killed.  Instead he is sent on an absurd and seemingly impossible mission.  Along with Kolya, another young man in a similar predicament, he is sent to obtain a dozen eggs for a colonel’s daughter’s wedding feast.

That’s right. While Lev and everyone he knows are starving to death and choking down ration bread that is more sawdust than wheat, a high ranking police official is planning a wedding for his daughter that will include a cake made with real eggs, butter, and flour.  And somehow Lev and Kolya have to find and deliver 12 eggs or die trying.

What I Thought…

I loved this book.  Loved it.  And I really needed to love it because the last few books I read were good, but they didn’t give me that warm, fuzzy, this is why I love reading feeling that I had been looking for.

Lev and Kolya are amazing characters.  Lev is so vulnerable and honest and Kolya is so delightful and funny and brave.  Kolya at first seemed too self-assured and imperturbable until I realized that we were seeing him through Lev’s eyes, not his own.  Master stroke, Benioff.  The descriptions of Leningrad under siege and of occupied Russia (where their quest for eggs takes them) were exquisite.  I don’t know how accurately the settings were depicted, but they have the feel of authenticity.  For the reader of fiction, that is perhaps more important.

On their quest they encounter people made dangerous by their desperation.  Or perhaps they are dangerous people who just happen to be desperate.  They make friends.  They narrowly escape enemy capture only later to walk willingly into the hands of the enemy.  They shoot and are shot at, seeing friends and enemies die in front of them.  They are both brave and fearful, but (coming full circle to Game of Thrones) Ned Stark tells us that the only time a man can be brave is when he is afraid.  And in the end, the get those damn eggs.

Their adventure is by turns hilarious and terrifying.  Absurd is the only word to describe it, but they lived in absurd times.  So, for that matter, do we.  I will not minimize the realities of genocide or watching your friends die of starvation by comparing it to waking in the morning to another Trump tweetstorm.  I understand these things are different by many orders of magnitude.  I will simply say that this quote resonated with me on many levels.

“The days had become a confusion of catastrophes; what seemed impossible in the afternoon was blunt fact by the evening.”

 

I am working through my ever growing TBR list this year as part of a #BeattheBacklist Challenge.  You can see a list of the books I propose to read with links to those I read and review here.  I’d love to hear your recommendations or just talk about Game of Thrones.  Seriously, anytime.

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