CITY OF THIEVES by David Benioff

Finally, free wi-fi. Thank you, Radisson Hotel St. Petersburg!

Benioff Speaking of St. Petersburg (where I am writing from), my first vacation read was City of Thieves, by David Benioff. It's the story of two men who get caught by the Russian army during the Siege of Leningrad (the Germans' attempt to take St. Petersburg during WWII) and taken to prison. Lev, a Jewish teenager who had been helping with the Russian resistance, was caught looting a dead German officer's body, and Kolya, a member of the Russian army, was accused of deserting his division. Lev and Kolya are spared certain death, however, by a Russian commander who tells them that they can buy their freedom if they return a week later with a dozen eggs for his daughter's wedding cake – an impossibility during the extreme rationing and deprivation the Russians suffered during the siege.

City of Thieves is many things – action-packed, suspenseful, sad, violent, touching, and even funny at times. Lev and Kolya, like many unlikely duos from buddy movies, form a tight bond over the course of the week and the intense (near-death) experiences they share while in search of the eggs that will save their lives. The book sort of reads like a screenplay, which isn't surprising given that Benioff is a screenwriter in addition to a novelist. (He wrote the screenplay for the movie version of the The Kite Runner, as well as a few other popular movies.) I could definitely see this being made as a movie… but not a movie that I would go to see. Way too violent for me. There are many graphic scenes throughout the book depicting violence and brutality at the hands of the Germans and the Russians alike. I had trouble reading the book because of the disturbing scenes throughout.

But I am very glad I made it through City of Thieves. It is beautifully written, and the characters are memorable and have stayed with me for days after I finished. (Especially Kolya.) Plus, for me, it was an important lesson in Russian history that I was glad to learn en route to St. Petersburg. I keep imagining this huge, bustling city being cut off by the Germans, and trying to picture the devastation and terrible quality of life that the residents of St. Petersburg suffered during those 900 days. It's hard to believe that was only 70 years ago.

City of Thieves has been widely and very favorably reviewed. I remember someone once described it as "the perfect novel", and I can see why. Benioff is a very skilled writer and the book is very good. There's a Hollywood ending – again, the screenwriter shows through – but it's still a satisfying one. I'd recommend this book highly to anyone who is interested in the time period, or who enjoys a good action-packed-wartime-buddy-story. Just be sure you're prepared for the violent parts.

City of Thieves opens with the "author" – supposedly Benioff – interviewing his grandfather  – who turns out to be Lev – in Florida in the 2000s. I read the book thinking that this was a true story – that Benioff had embellished and filled in where necessary, but that this story had actually happened to Benioff's grandfather. Turns out that's not true – the book is entirely fiction. All four of Benioff's grandparents were born in the U.S. Here's an exclusive Borders interview with Benioff (you can find part 2 here) that I found pretty interesting.

Hi FTC – you're wondering if the publisher gave me a free copy of the book in exchange for this positive review?  Nyet! I got this one on my own. (And besides, I can't be bought that easily.)