Tuesday, March 24, 2009

REVIEW: City of Thieves, by David Benioff

City of Thieves, by David Benioff. Published 2008 by Viking. Literary Fiction.

City of Thieves was actually one of my favorite reads of last year, and I can't figure out why I never got around to writing a review. So, I'll try to make up for that oversight now!

Benioff's novel follows the adventures of one Lev Beniov, a young Russian Jew trying to get through the siege of Leningrad during World War 2; after stealing a knife from a dead German, he ends up in prison along with Kolya Vlasov, a soldier also being punished. Convinced he is about to die, he ends up, much to his surprise, paired with the confident and casually anti-Semitic Kolya on a mission to find enough eggs for a Soviet official's daughter's wedding cake. Succeed, and they go free. Fail- and, well, this isn't the kind of mission either man can afford to fail.

The premise has something of a fairy tale flavor- in the middle of the siege, when people are eating glue and paper to survive, they help make a wedding cake for a princess. Lev and Kolya set off together, following rumors and hunches and fighting hunger, cold and fatigue. They take up with a band of young civilian-soldiers who help them fend off Germans here and there, including a beautiful, redhaired sharpshooter named Vika. She claims to be NKVD- a precursor to the KGB- and seems to have the chops to go with it. Lev is smitten, but does she feel the same way?

City of Thieves hums along at a good pace, and kept me interested and reading avidly the whole way. Well-written, it's on the light side and Lev and Kolya are charismatic and engaging. Their adventures were outlandish but believable, set in a world gone mad, where anything is possible. Once I picked it up, it was almost impossible to put down, from the beginning, when Lev's adult grandson asks to hear his grandfather's recollections of the war, to the very last sentence, where Benioff gives the story a twist I won't give away. City of Thieves is a terrific, plot-driven page-turner with great characters and, despite the horrors the characters endure, a real sweetness and optimism. I'm glad I picked it up and if you like a light thriller mixed with a little black humor, you'll like it too.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.