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.