City of Thieves reads like a novelized "buddy movie"
(think Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or
Thelma and Louise). This odd couple is comprised of Lev
(small, dark, cowardly, morose, virginal and awkward) and
Kolya (tall, blonde, handsome, funny, brash, rakish and
confident), who together take what amounts to a war-time
"road trip." Like movies of the genre, the principals move
through scenes that are alternately tragic and exhilarating,
culminating in an exciting, action-packed finish as the
heroes realize their goal. It's hard not to like tales that
fall into this pattern, provided they're reasonably
well-done - and City of Thieves certainly is more
than well-done it's exceptional.
Benioff (who wrote the screenplay for The Kite Runner) has a great ear for dialog - Koyla and Lev's banter, as well as Kolya's lectures to Lev on life and women, illuminate their likable personalities and provide the reader with an amusing, welcome relief from some of their more gruesome encounters.
Although engaging, City of Thieves does not contain great emotional depths. Horrific events are reported - the reader observes, but does not relate. In this, especially, Benioff's background as a screenwriter is evident. Movies are primarily visual affairs, and Benioff's writing focuses on what is seen, not what is felt. Some writers manage to convey everything about an experience down to the smells of a place; Benioff's descriptions are more or less limited to what's observable.
Having said that, the book's tone works very well with the subject matter. Benioff expertly balances his tale, walking a fine line between horror and humor. The Siege is a very dark subject, yet we are not overwhelmed with the misery and deprivation that the residents of Leningrad endured. There is humor here, but it's very dark "gallows humor", which strikes the reader as eminently appropriate in the circumstances.
The Siege of Leningrad provides a captivating backdrop. Although early-review copies of the book indicated that it was somewhat based on Benioff's grandfather's experience, it appears that the work is entirely fictional*. However, it is clear that Benioff has done his homework, incorporating historically accurate elements throughout the novel - although the basic premise does strain the reader's credulity somewhat. It's hard to imagine two men who are starving to death traipsing around a besieged countryside in the middle of winter. In that respect, though, it honors the time-worn tradition of the action-adventure movie; it doesn't always make sense, but it's so much fun that you don't really care.
In spite of its flaws, City of Thieves is one of the most entertaining novels I have read in recent months. Its fast pace and believable characters will appeal to a wide range of readers, and it's an ideal choice for those looking for a high-quality page-turner.
*In an interview shortly after publication, Benioff confirmed that the novel's first chapter is pure invention and that all four of his grandparents were born in the United States (you can read the interview at BookBrowse), which begs the question why, in the advanced review copies of the novel, he felt the need to thank his grandfather for his "patience with my late-night phone calls" about the blockade.
Saint Petersburg or Leningrad?
Saint Petersburg (map) was founded by Tsar Peter I (Peter The Great) in 1703, after he captured the land from the Norwegians during The Great Northern War (fought over the Baltic region). Peter moved his capital from Moscow to St Petersburg in 1712 and it continued as the capital for most of the years up until 1918 when the capital moved back to Moscow. In 1914, it was renamed Petrograd as Saint Petersburg was perceived as too Germanic. Then in 1924, to honor the recently deceased Soviet leader, it was named Leningrad. In 1991, the same day that the Russians held their first presidential election, a majority of voters in Leningrad voted to restore the city's name to Saint Petersburg. Today, St Petersburg is the second largest city in Russia and the northernmost city in the world with a population of over 1 million.
This review was originally published in September 2008, and has been updated for the April 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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