Monday, 30 March 2015

'City of Thieves' by David Benioff (2008)

Synopsis: City of Thieves is set in WWII during the German siege of Leningrad (modern-day Saint Petersburg). Lev Beniov is a shy, 17 year old Jew who is arrested for looting the corpse of a German paratrooper. Later that night, a handsome and self-confident army deserter called Kolya is thrown into Lev's prison cell. Lev is terrified of being executed but Kolya seems completely calm about the situation. When the dawn arrives the two of them are then presented to Colonel Grechko of the NKVD who offers them a near impossible challenge. If the two of them can find a dozen eggs for his daughter's wedding cake within five days they'll be given a full pardon and will obtain their freedom. If they fail, Grechko will have them hunted down and shot. Lev and Kolya must then embark on a desperate quest in a city that's been cut off from all supplies for months and where people are suffering from starvation - and it's the coldest winter in Russian history. Along the way the two of them encounter Soviet resistance fighters, victims of war, and a Nazi death squad.

These days David Benioff is probably best known for being one of the co-creators and executive producers of HBO's Game of Thrones but he's also a Hollywood screenwriter and a novelist. I found out about this particular book of his through my friend Lianne's blog Eclectic Tales. Now that I've finished City of Thieves I'm not exactly sure what rating I should give it. There were a lot of things about this book that I loved but there were other things about the book that I found frustrating. This is going to be a difficult one to review for sure and to help me organise my thoughts I'm going to write this review in bullet-point.

The things that I loved about the book:
  • The setting - The Siege of Leningrad lasted for almost three years, is one of the longest sieges in history, and is by far the most devastating in terms of deaths. The estimates about the number of people who died from the siege vary but it's believed that it could have killed up to 1.5 million people. As a British reader I was fascinated to learn more about Russia's involvement in WWII, and more specifically how the war affected the lives of the people of Leningrad and its surrounding countryside. Benioff clearly did his research for the book and the atmosphere and setting felt very accurate and convincing.
  • The story - There's a slight touch of magical realism to City of Thieves - as the plot is kind of bizarre - but in all other respects the story is very gritty and visceral. There are some beautiful descriptions in the book and Benioff's pacing is superb. His screenwriting background really shines through as the writing is highly cinematic and there are some brilliant action scenes that would be thrilling to watch on screen. This book could make for a great film! I imagine David Benioff could quite easily convince HBO to make an adaptation of his book if he really wanted to but I actually think this book would be better suited to the big screen. 
  • The occasional lightness of tone - WWII stories have a tendency to be unrelentingly miserable but thankfully this one wasn't all doom and gloom. That's not to say that there aren't sad and harrowing scenes in the book because there are. The most horrific part is a scene where Lev and Kolya find some girls who are being forced to work as sex slaves for some Nazi soldiers. The girls then tell them about a 14 year old girl called Zoya who tried to escape from the soldiers and what then happened to her when she was caught. I had to give the book a rest at that point and if the book had been as brutal as that the whole through then there's no way I'd have been able to finish it. But thankfully there are some genuinely funny scenes in the book. Kolya gets some hilarious one-liners!

And now for the things that I didn't like about the book:
  • The framing device - For some reason Benioff chose to use a framing device with his book. City of Thieves starts off with a prologue in which Benioff claims that he's telling the story of his own grandfather but the prologue is completely fictitious because all of Benioff's grandparents were born in America. He admits to this in interviews. So why did he do it then? There are certain books (like The Princess Bride or Wuthering Heights) where framing devices manage to enhance the stories. They provide an additional layer of intrigue and interest. With this book the framing device felt very odd and unnecessary :S It took away from the book instead of adding to it.
  • The OTT crassness - In many of Lev and Kolya's conversations there was swearing, sex-talk and talk about bodily functions and I really wish that Benioff could have toned it down. 
  • Lev - I wasn't all that keen on his character. If City of Thieves ever gets adapted I think a great actor could really make something out of his character but when I read the book I never really felt as though I was feeling the full extent of Lev's emotions and he was unnecessarily surly and bad-tempered towards Kolya at times. To be fair I did like Lev more as the story progressed but I much preferred Kolya out of the two. I didn't like Kolya's womanising but he was the much funnier and more interesting character. He was always very affectionate and kind towards Lev as well and I thought that was really sweet.

I've decided to give City of Thieves a 4/5 rating now because I do think that it's a very good book. It was thrilling, funny, sad, gripping and unique. I didn't enjoy the book as much as I was hoping to but on the whole I still liked it quite a lot.

Rating: 4/5


Lianne @ said...

Great review, Hannah! I'm glad you were able to get through that harrowing bit with the sex slaves, I too had to put the book down after reading that section (ugh, I'm shuddering over here just recalling bits of that =S). It's been a long time since I've read the book but I do recall thinking that Lev was the more grounded of the two, Kolya definitely being the more lively/funnier/more interesting. Definitely need to re-read this book now, haha xD

Hannah said...

Thank you! Yes, that part was the hardest bit of the book for me to read although the scene where they find the dogs in the field made me really sad as well.

I hope you'll enjoy your re-read just as much as your first read!