City of Thieves by David Benioff was first published in 2008. David Benioff is a screenwriter who is best known as the co-creator, showrunner, and writer of television series Game of Thrones. He wrote City of Thieves based upon his Russian grandfather’s stories of events that happened in Leningrad during World War II. Hilter had called Leningrad “the birthplace of Bolshevism, that city of thieves and maggots”.
The main character of City of Thieves is the narrator, Lev Beniov. Lev is a 17-year-old half Jewish Russian living in Leningrad (which he still calls Piter) during World War II. His father, a poet, had been “taken” five years earlier by the NKVD, the police division in charge of carrying out Stalin’s great purge. Lev’s mother and sister flee Leningrad, but Lev stays in the city as a firefighter. The city is now a graveyard, a city of ghosts. One night Lev is arrested for looting the corpse of a German paratrooper. Lev is paired with another prisoner, Kolya, who has been arrested for desertion. The two are taken to a Russian general who tells them if they can procure one dozen eggs for his daughter’s wedding cake in a week, he will set them free and give them generous ration cards. If not, they will be killed.
Lev and Kolya’s journey to find the eggs is an epic adventure. The story shows the harsh reality and horrors of the war including cannibalism, starvation, sex slaves, harsh winter weather, and evil German soldiers. Yet in the midst of this chaos, Lev and Kolya are able to bond and endure the trials with humor. The characters are endearing and easy to root for their success. Lev is an awkward, virginal teenager and Kolya is a self-proclaimed Russian Don Juan. It is an entertaining coming-of-age tale that happens to be set in a gruesome place. The two seem incongruous, but Benioff’s prose really makes the story work.
This is a story that will stay with me. 5-Stars. Book Club recommended.