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City Of Thieves


City Of Thieves

David Benioff’s second novel (following THE 25th HOUR) is
a modern masterpiece, a work that is both heartstopping and
heartbreaking and one worthy of occupying the same shelf as wartime
classics like CATCH-22 and SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE. From its opening
sentence to its vivid and richly satisfying ending, every note
Benioff strikes is perfect and true.

The novel opens as a disgruntled young screenwriter named David is
assigned to write an autobiographical essay about his
“intensely dull life.” Instead, he travels to the
Florida Gulf Coast, where his Russian immigrant grandparents have
retired after selling their small Brooklyn-based insurance company.
He turns on a tape recorder for a week and captures his
grandfather’s remarkable story of survival during the siege
of Leningrad in January 1942, “the week he met my
grandmother, made his best friend, and killed two

“You have never been so hungry, you have never been so
cold,” begins Lev Beniov’s tale. A chess-playing
17-year-old virgin, self-conscious about his sexual inexperience
and his large nose, he finds himself in “Piter,” its
residents’ shorthand name for Leningrad before the Bolshevik
Revolution. His father, a writer, has been spirited away several
years earlier by the secret police, and his mother and sister have
fled to the countryside, leaving Lev alone with two young friends
in a grim apartment block as the city endures nightly German
bombing raids and slowly starves to death.

When Lev is arrested for stripping the belongings from a dead
German pilot who has parachuted into the street outside his
apartment, he is dumped into a dreaded prison nicknamed
“death’s waiting room.” There he meets Kolya, a
young private in the Red Army who has been arrested for desertion.
Kolya, as Lev describes him, is “a braggart, a know-it-all, a
Jew-baiting Cossack,” whose “confidence was so pure and
complete it no longer seemed like arrogance, just the mark of a man
who had accepted his own heroic destiny.” Kolya fancies
himself an expert on women and Russian literature, tantalizing his
companion with stories of his sexual exploits and regaling Lev with
lengthy excerpts from a novel entitled THE COURTYARD
HOUND, the revelation of whose authorship ultimately
provides startling insights into Kolya’s character.

Instead of summary execution for their crimes, Lev and Kolya are
offered a bizarre opportunity to escape their fate. Colonel
Grechko, of the NKVD, dispatches them to find a dozen eggs for his
daughter’s wedding in six days. They soon exhaust their
efforts to unearth the prize in the grim precincts of Leningrad,
“a city of ghosts and cannibals,” and the
ever-confident Kolya persuades Lev to strike out with him for an
agricultural collective, 30 miles distant and deep behind German
lines, on the slim hope they’ll find the precious eggs in
time to guarantee their survival.

The two young men trudge across a surrealistic winter landscape,
encountering mounds of dead dogs, soldiers frozen waist deep in
snow and young farm girls held captive for the pleasure of German
soldiers. When they meet a group of partisans, led by a red-haired
female sharpshooter named Vika, they’re slowly transformed
from a pair of feckless vagabonds into determined fighters. The
climactic gamble Vika, Kolya and Lev make to obtain the precious
eggs, involving a chess game with a sadistic Einzatsgruppe
commander, begs to be read in one breath.

Benioff’s novel is packed with enough action to fill the most
absorbing thriller --- gunfights, brutal hand-to-hand combat and
hairsbreadth escapes. What allows the book to transcend the
limitations of workmanlike genre fiction is the patient and
revelatory way in which it exposes such a broad range and depth of
human emotions. Fear, courage, heroism and barbarism all are on
display in abundance. Most captivating of all is the story’s
depiction of the odd but seemingly inevitable path Lev and Kolya
tread toward true friendship. Kolya assumes for himself the task of
leading his younger companion to maturity, and Lev, gradually and
sometimes grudgingly, finds his affection growing for his
bravehearted friend. That Benioff delivers all of this in a
tightly-written 250 pages makes the achievement of CITY OF THIEVES
all the more remarkable.

We read novels for a host of reasons --- for escape, to deepen our
understanding of human character, or for the pleasure of
well-crafted prose. Every one of those elements is present in this
shatteringly beautiful and brilliant work. And on rare occasions
we’re handed a gift of a novel that’s so filled with
truth it has the power to change the way we look at the world. CITY
OF THIEVES is one of them.


Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg ( on December 27, 2010

City Of Thieves
by David Benioff

  • Publication Date: May 15, 2008
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult
  • ISBN-10: 0670018708
  • ISBN-13: 9780670018703