I just finished reading David Benioff’s book, City of Thieves. My friend Mark recommended it to me early in the summer. But I only just got around to reading it. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, though. In fact, it might be my favorite book that I’ve read this year.
The introduction to the book indicates that there’s some factual basis to the story. It was supposedly aurally related to the author by his grandfather. Regardless, it reads like a novel.
The story takes place in Leningrad (a.k.a. Saint Petersburg) during the German siege of the city in the Second World War. The protagonist is a Jewish teenager born and raised in Leningrad named Lev. At the beginning of the book, Lev watches for blazes that pop up after Nazi air raids. But in the first week of 1942, instead of spotting fires he spots a parachute falling from the sky. When he and his friends go to inspect the landing site, they find a German pilot. Presumably frozen to death from his descent. So they loot his body for chocolate, liquor, and other useful items. While looting the corpse, however they fail to hear the military police approaching until it’s too late.
The military police capture Lev. But they do not execute him on the spot, as military police protocol dictates. Instead, they take him to a prison fortress in the heart of the city. The next morning, he’s brought before a colonel from the Russian military. He stands in judgment together with a soldier named Kolya, accused of deserting his regiment. And the colonel outlines a very unusual form of “punishment” determined for their crimes.
The military officer commands the guards to take the ration cards from Lev and Kolya. These cards are their only means of survival in a city facing starvation from the siege. To get their cards back, they must return with a dozen eggs. The military baker must have the eggs to bake a wedding cake for the colonel’s daughter, scheduled four days later. So Lev and Kolya will either succeed in their mission and receive ration cards and a second chance for survival, they will starve to death without the ration cards, or they will die in attempting their mission.
It’s a brilliantly bizarre twist on the classic “Mission: Impossible” storyline.
They elude capture by a band of cannibals. They discover the last chicken in Leningrad. Still, they eventually decide that they must escape the siege-works to explore the countryside. Outside the city defenses, conditions are equally desperate, but Nazi forces pose threats on every side. I love the way that the author develops the relationship and dialogue between Lev and Kolya, along the way. They eventually join up with resistance fighters — including a bizarre sort of love interest — in their mission to take down a Nazi mastermind. But all along the way, they keep hunting for eggs.
It’s a really enjoyable story. The characters are multi-faceted. The setting is vivid. And the way that the plot is all tied together at the end is perfect. I really enjoyed reading City of Thieves, and I recommend it to all fans of World War II history, European culture, and good fiction.