The premise of David Benioff’s second novel, City of Thieves, is as absurd as they come. Two Russians, arrested by the Germans for petty crimes during the WWII German occupation of Russia, are offered a deal: in exchange for their lives, they must provide the colonel with a dozen eggs. Accepting the mission, Lev and Kolya set off across the famine-ridden frozen wasteland with high hopes. Ridiculous? Perhaps. But Benioff’s simple tale capitalizes on the complexity of friendship and the escapist pleasure of the quest novel. With confident Kolya, the “great salesman, especially when he was selling himself,” and the overly self-conscious narrator Lev, even a hopeless quest for elusive eggs remains entertaining.
Although primarily lighthearted, City takes on an eerie aura with “German corpses falling from the sky; cannibals selling sausage links made from ground human; apartment blocks collapsing to the ground; and dogs becoming bombs.” Despite this, however, the novel provides an excellent weekend getaway book. Such shocking scenes seem almost mythical, lending a larger-than-life quality to the novel. In the peculiar quest of Lev and Kolya, even the most bizarre events seem right at home. Reality and fantasy blur into a whirling cycle of dreamlike dance and vivid nightmare.
Rounding out the cast of characters are the tomboy sniper Vika, her posse of Russian resistance fighters, and the German villains. Vika provides the love interest, one that becomes appropriately sticky with triangulated affections, and the host of enemy leaders – from Colonel Grechko who sits as his desk drawing X’s on his notepad to bulky chess-playing Commander Abendroth – spice up the pages of City while complicating things for its heroes. Love and war flit across the pages, interspersed with somber reflections on the potential immediacy of death, a balance that allows City of Thieves to be action-packed while retaining complexity.
Among all this drama, Benioff’s prose elicits a surprising combination of grins and grimaces. The extreme desperation Benioff builds up at the beginning of the novel frightens readers into submission in the violent environment of Russia. Lev admits to “spending spare minutes hunting rats” to quell his hunger and buys “library candy, made from tearing the covers off of books, peeling off the binding glue, boiling it down, and reforming it into bars.” The cold weather compounds the desperate situation of starvation. Moving through the wasteland, “the cold was a greater danger than the Germans” to Lev and Kolya; Lev’s fingertips were numb even with “thick wool mittens and hands shoved into the pockets of his overcoat.” Lev’s miserable plight causes readers to shiver with each page turn and long for a mere hard-boiled egg to satisfy the hungry ache.
The harsh winter misery is somewhat assuaged by Kolya’s charming attempts to be the older brother figure to young Lev. “You’re a virgin, aren’t you,” Kolya asks. And thus the stage is set for Kolya’s sexual education of young Lev. With anecdotes of his personal love life providing the basis for advice, Kolya takes it upon himself to instruct Lev in the ways of women. Lev proves a willing pupil, although an uncomfortable one, and the dynamic between these two men provides a diversion – for them and for readers – from the dangerous task at hand. Although Benioff includes some measure of gratuitous sexual content in the course of this subplot, the mentor role of Kolya allows him to gain respect from even squeamish readers. Who but the heroic-looking blondie Kolya could get away with such indelicacy yet remain so likable?
Benioff’s narrator, Lev, couldn’t be more different from confident Kolya. Lev typifies the self-conscious youth. While about to face hand-to-hand combat with eight Germans, Lev finds himself reflecting on how foolish he must look with a wimpy knife in his hand. He fears sex because “the geometry of the act confuses him.” Lev has a sensitive soul, one unaccustomed to sharing feelings or thoughts with anyone. He also possesses a reflective imagination that enhances his sensations of loneliness and discomfort on his long trek. Lev imagines himself and his companions as “a band of enchanted mice, marching beneath the chalked moon on the blackboard sky.” He also admits to feeling slow and exhausted during the journey, feeling like “someone had poured thick syrup into a hole in my skull.”
Kolya represents the polar opposite of Lev’s vulnerability, rarely revealing any fear or weakness. The self-assured, dominant Kolya leads Lev into maturity in the span of one week, referring to the timid boy affectionately as “little lion,” and showing confidence in the boy despite the frightful circumstances. Behind his tough-guy façade, Kolya hides a natural storyteller, an insightful intellectual who rarely shuts up. With only Lev to listen, Kolya resembles “a senile grandfather” who repeats his memorized stories over and over again to family dinner parties. Senile, maybe. But endearing nonetheless.
Although Kolya and Lev both possess enjoyable quirks and form an engaging duo throughout the novel, neither protagonist offers much by way of originality; both are classic examples of stock characters. Character development happens naturally, but a bit too predictably. For a quick action read, though, Benioff’s characters serve their purpose.
Benioff’s recent screenwriting experience is obvious in City of Thieves, which reads like a film script: a well-paced quest journey and the struggle to survive. Although the terrain of Russia is unfamiliar to most readers, the story does not require understanding of the novel’s locale. The haunting images of a frozen dead soldier, marking the road like a signpost, and a farmhouse filled with beautiful girls dancing in the firelight affect Benioff’s characters as much as they affect his readers. Without requiring immersion in Russian culture, Benioff still provides a believable setting filled with convincing characters. City of Thieves draws readers into the unfamiliar setting with comfortable ease, providing just enough stability to prevent disorientation. The plot does what seems fitting, but does it so adeptly that readers can still be excited by the outcomes. City of Thieves might not be ground-breaking in plot theme or character models, but the book does its job as entertaining escapist literature.