David Benioff lives a charmed life, even if it is begrudgingly an earned one. The 25th Hour launched a couple of careers for him, both in novels and in Hollywood. He married Amanda Peet, constant screen sweetheart. Plus, there was that whole Game of Thrones tv show thing.
With all of that, when I saw one of my Twitter follows was starting an online book club called A Book, A Beer, A Brotherhood and the first selection was a Benioff book (released in 2008), I decided to join my first book club, even if it is a virtual one. But let’s be honest, he probably had me the “A Beer” part.
City of Thieves is set in WWII era Russia, in and around besieged Leningrad, to be exact. It is set up in the beginning as a retelling of Benioff’s grandfather’s wartime story, although that apparently was a storytelling device as well. It follows the story of Lev Beniov, a young Jewish boy who’s father was likely murdered by the Stalin regime because of his poetry and a mother who had fled the city already. Lev stayed behind out of a sense of duty.
Lev gets arrested for innocuous reasons and meets another prisoner, Kolya, an older, bigger, more handsome soldier/deserter in jail. What ensues is the duo being sent on a mission for ridiculous reasons and facing ridiculous obstacles (cannibals’, a mysterious chicken man, a whore house and secret agent militias).
And yet the ridiculousness of the plot devices never seem silly as Lev and Kolya make their way through the story. Yes, why they are doing what they are doing is mostly a plot device, but a war-time Russian landscape makes the tale seem somewhat plausible, and serves as another character to ground what ultimately becomes both a buddy adventure story and a coming-of-age story for Lev.
Benioff juxtaposes the buddy humor and cajoling with the stark circumstances of the conditions adeptly. And by the time the book reaches its apex, he gives the reader a few characters that are easy to root for. While a lot of historical fiction focuses on time and place, this one focuses on its two central characters, and why you should want them to live.
All in all, a good start to my first book club.