Because I’m always a billion years behind popular culture, I had no idea that the David Benioff of the Game of Thrones TV show was also an author. And a good one! In applying for a freelance job that wanted an analytical summary of the first three chapters of City of Thieves, I was hooked and had to read the whole thing. I didn’t get the job, but I really enjoyed the novel.
City of Thieves is a historical fiction surrounding the siege and starvation of Leningrad (St. Petersburg) during the Nazi invasion. Told in first person, we follow Lev Beniov through the deprivation and degradation of living in the literal middle of war. In fear of both the Nazis and his own government, Lev gets caught looting a dead German solider and is sent to prison. He shares a cell with a young deserter named Kolya, and the two are sent on a special mission to find a dozen eggs for a NKDV colonel in the starving city.
While Lev is an admitted coward just trying to stay alive, Kolya is bravado and charm and treats life like a game. The two make for unlikely, yet important friends as they search for the eggs that will return their confiscated ration cards.
Benioff’s whole story takes place over five days, but feels like an entire lifetime of events, which is probably how time moved for most people living through the horror. Benioff excellently balances humor and light with the terror, evil, and heaviness of the book’s subject matter, which feels (at least to me) genuine to the human experience of two teenage boys traipsing through the occupied Russian countryside. The boys encounter and escape atrocities and in the next beat Kolya’s digging Lev about his virginity.
Benioff also expertly details the scenes and spaces to give us both the story and a history lesson. Lev describes the ‘library candy’ of Leningrad made from the binding paste of stolen books that people ate, his accidental wandering into a cannibal’s apartment, and a first-hand account of Nazi brutality on Russian civilians.
Benioff’s book is one of the reasons I love historical fiction so much; it’s an engaging and humanistic way to really get to the core of what living in a past time and space felt like. I was transported to this terrible place, and have come away with a much deeper understanding of just how bad the situation was, and why it’s so important to never let it happen again.