City of Thieves by David Benioff – Book Review

I’m late to the party with this book, which was originally published back in 2008, and I hadn’t heard of it until a couple of months ago. It’s a story set during the Second World War, in frozen Leningrad during the years of the Nazi occupations. I’m a sucker for any book ¬†about 20th century European history, but in particular there is something about Russian history that never fails to capture my imagination.

This is quite the story. Two boys, Lev and Kolya, are caught by the police, breaking curfew and desertion respectively, and to save themselves from certain execution (there was no food for city dwellers, let alone prisoners, in wartime Russia) they are set an impossible mission; in starving winter time Russia, find twelve eggs for the upcoming wedding of a famous general’s daughter.

They set off on an impossible escapade encountering everything from cannibals, frozen treks through the endless Russian countryside , mysterious insurgents and murderous Nazis.

The majority of the story’s dialogue focuses on the precarious friendship that develops between Lev and Kolya, one a small, quiet chess genius, whose Jewish ancestry and lack of experience with girls cause him angst in equal parts, and the other a cocky cossack, always ready to impart his unwanted wisdom. This is a coming of age story for the two boys, as much as it is a dangerous escapade.

The story is interesting and zips along quickly, events are quite evenly spaced out and the reader is never having to wait for something to happen. For a quick, light holiday read, it’s great. But I can’t say I got much more from it.

Given some of the horrific events described in the book, I had expected to feel the terror of the war, the coldness of the Russian winter and the hopes and fears of a boy becoming a man whilst living through Europe’s bloodiest hours. Instead, I was left with an interesting, but shallow, tale.

Benioff’s writing didn’t delve deep enough into the horror of what he was writing about. It felt like an action packed tale about two teenagers on an impossible mission, the life endangering moments interspersed by dirty talk about girls. It strikes me this would make a great film or a one off TV series. ¬†The author, David Benioff, is a screenwriter and most famous for being a co-creator of the hit show, Game of Thrones. Maybe the guts, gore and glory of City of Thieves would come alive on the small screen, in a way that it just couldn’t on paper.