David Benioff’s novel City of Thieves is set in Russia during WWII and centers on Lev (the narrator) and his friendship with Kolya, whom he meets when he’s caught looting the body of a German paratrooper and taken to jail. Instead of being executed, Lev and Kolya are asked to find a dozen eggs for the wedding of Colonel’s daughter. They try finding these in blockaded Leningrad, but when that proves impossible they head out into the countryside, into German-occupied territory where a series of scrapes and adventures await them. Not the least of which involve Lev falling in love with a young woman who is also a sharpshooting assassin.
The book is entertaining and a quick read. I enjoyed it so don’t let what I’m about to say stop you from trying it. But I have some reservations, mostly because I can’t help thinking the book should really be a movie. And I don’t mean that something about the book makes it perfect for a screen adaptation. I actually think it should have been a film, rather than a book. The whole time I was reading it, I couldn’t help thinking that its aesthetic was simply more suited to film. By that I mean that although the story moves through a series of grave and difficult situations (it’s set during the siege of Leningrad, for goodness sake, when the Russians were eating paper and glue to stay alive), it has a frustrating lightness about it. I say frustrating because I got the sense the book wanted to be more serious and just didn’t manage it.
Lev and Kolya are the perfect comedic (and cinematic) duo – one dark and brooding, one light and handsome – and they spend the book navigating their dangerous quest with plenty laddish humor. I believe that the human soul can seek humor in the darkest of situations, but Kolya’s continual joking and teasing and bravado wore a little thin by the end of the book.
Take Benini’s Life is Beautiful for example, a film that gets criticized for trying to be funny about Nazi Germany. But the whole point of that film, as I see it, is that it’s actually a tragedy. What could be more tragic than a father trying to keep the magic of childhood alive for his son in a situation that is completely devoid of any sort of magic or goodness. That’s not funny, it’s enough to make you weep.
City of Thieves didn’t seem willing to ever let you weep, and yet all the ingredients were there. Even a prologue which leads the reader (falsely) to believe that the book is based on Benioff’s own grandfather.
All in all, I would consider City of Thieves a few hours of entertainment…with a lot of interesting history, some wonderful landscapes and just enough seriousness to make you enjoy the clever but somewhat corny ending. Somehow, I feel a little guilty for sounding so negative about this book because I did enjoy it, it’s well-written, it’s compelling, it’s full of vivid scenes…but it just didn’t ever convince me to take it seriously enough. But if you want a glowing review, check out the New York Times.