‘City of Thieves’ by David Benioff [Book Review]

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I’m one of those people who avoids books about war as much as possible. I know, most fantasy novels deal with war in some capacity but it’s different when I know it’s fictional.

When the war is based on real events in history I find myself unable to read them.

While I found this novel difficult to read at some points, I was surprised with how invested I became in this story about two soldiers trying to find eggs.

Length: 258 pages

Published June 1st 2008 by Viking Books

Genre: Historical Fiction

Goodreads Summary

From the critically acclaimed author of The 25th Hour, a captivating novel about war, courage, survival — and a remarkable friendship that ripples across a lifetime.

During the Nazis’ brutal siege of Leningrad, Lev Beniov is arrested for looting and thrown into the same cell as a handsome deserter named Kolya. Instead of being executed, Lev and Kolya are given a shot at saving their own lives by complying with an outrageous directive: secure a dozen eggs for a powerful Soviet colonel to use in his daughter’s wedding cake. In a city cut off from all supplies and suffering unbelievable deprivation, Lev and Kolya embark on a hunt through the dire lawlessness of Leningrad and behind enemy lines to find the impossible.

By turns insightful and funny, thrilling and terrifying, City of Thieves is a gripping, cinematic World War II adventure and an intimate coming-of-age story with an utterly contemporary feel for how boys become men. 

Highlights

I think one of the key reasons I was able to read this novel at all was because it wasn’t really about the war. Sure, the war had a huge impact on the characters and how they conducted their lives, but there aren’t any trenches or massive battles. It’s really about what it was like to try and live in a country that had been at war for years and what that meant for all the people who weren’t on the front lines. It had a similar feel to The Book Thief by Markus Zusak–except I didn’t dissolve into a puddle of tears while reading Benioff’s novel.

It also reminded me a bit of Catch-22 by Joseph Heller in that there was a kind of self-awareness to the soldiers. I’m not entirely sure how to word it both there’s something mocking in the way this story centres around Lev and Koyla trying to find eggs in order to win back their lives. The very extravagance of throwing a traditional wedding when there are people starving touches on the absurdity that I love about Heller’s novel.

There’s also this feeling of stagnation that rarely finds its way into war stories. For those who weren’t fighting, the war was about waiting to see who would win and not about epic battles.

Low Points

I think most of the things I disliked about this novel boil down to “I really don’t like violence when I know it’s based on real events”.

Like, violence with magic? Totally fine because at the end of the day I can convince myself that it’s based in fiction. But violence in a war I know actually happened always makes my stomach turn.

I guess it’s a kind of compliment to Benioff’s writing that this fictional story was realistic enough to put me on edge.

It’s not just the obvious violence though. War makes people desperate and desperate people are the scariest kind of people because they will do anything to get what they need.

I’m willing to simply say that this novel was incredible in so many ways but war novels just aren’t my thing–even the really good ones.

Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I don’t know if I’ll ever read this book again. There’s enough heartbreak and melancholy in it that it’s not exactly something you want to read just to relax. However, I know that most of my problems with this novel stem from my own preferences and not because it wasn’t a wonderful novel.

If war and violence are less of a big deal for you than by all means, this novel is one of the best of it’s kind I’ve read. it shows a perspective of the war that I don’t experience much on account of being North American.

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