City of Thieves is the definition of a great Cannonball Read find (thanks Katsings!). I think it’s safe to say that the consensus around the Cannonball is that author David Benioff has the goods. Benioff also has the potential to be a bit of Pajiba favorite, being the executive producer/show runner of Game of Thrones, and writer of 25th Hour – both the novel and the screenplay – and the screenplay for The Kite Runner, although I haven’t seen this one yet, I hear good things. But back to the point – City of Thieves is a classic coming of age story filled with some rather un-classic aspects: cannibals, suspense, cross-dressers, romance and torture set against a historically accurate picture of Leningrad in 1942.
City of Thieves opens with a writer asking his grandfather to tell him about his experiences during World War II. The narrator knows that his grandfather, “the knife fighter” killed two Germans before he was eighteen. After relenting, Lev begins to tell his story to his grandson, talking openly for the first time about his childhood, coming to America and sex. Mostly though he talks about a two week period in 1942 when he met his best friend, the woman that would become his wife and killed those two Germans.
Lev’s story begins in and around Leningrad during the first winter of the German siege during World War II. Our hero is a seventeen year old virgin living alone after his mother and sister fled the city for the seemingly safer countryside. Too young for the Red Army, Lev does all the other jobs available to him, including being on his building’s firefighting squad. It’s from his position on the rooftop during the nightly bombings that Lev sees the falling German trooper who would so drastically change his path.
Lev is arrested for looting the corpse of the dead German, under martial law this is a crime punishable by death, but he is instead arrested and placed in a cell with a handsome friendly deserter named Kolya. Kolya’s crime is also grounds for execution, he is a deserter of the Red Army, and that’s what they expect come morning. However in a twist of fate they are given a chance to save their own lives, all they have to do is find a dozen eggs for a powerful colonel’s daughter’s wedding cake.
A dozen eggs in a city cut off from supplies, a city which is starving to death – is a ludicrous and impossible task, one which takes our new friends far into German occupied territory, through the bitter cold of winter and countless adventures and atrocities. While the description of the plot seems dark and depressing it’s also important to note that the leads approach each event with a degree of gallows humor which keeps the book light for the reader.