City of Thieves by David Benioff – book review

City of Thieves is a story about a young man from St. Petersberg (or Leningrad, as it was known at the time) who is caught looting the corpse of a downed German pilot and as a result is sent on an unlikely caper that puts him together with Red army deserter Koyla to find a dozen eggs.

It’s an absorbing and action-packed story that is funny despite being set in one of the bleakest times and places in human history. It’s not a long book but the pacing is perfect and there’s never a dull moment.

A lively pace

One of the things that I enjoyed most about this books was how quickly the story moves, there’s always plenty of action, lively dialogue and funny moments. It’s not exactly high-brow literary fiction, but that’s no bad thing.

David Benioff is better known as a Hollywood screenwriter and the showrunner of Game of Thrones, so it’s no surprise that he knows how to tell a story. In the hands of another writer, it’s possible this story could have been twice the length and have a lot more moments of reflection on the horrors of war.

As the story takes place in Russia during World War 2, it’s not a surprise that there are some horrible scenes in this book but I found the tone these were handled was right. It reminded me a little bit of Catch-22 in the way it made the terrible seem slightly absurd. Now I think about it, there are lots of very funny stories that are set in moments in time that are almost unbearable, perhaps humour is a natural human way of coping with circumstances we can’t otherwise comprehend.

St Petersberg / Leningrad

I’ve read a lot about St Petersberg through Dostoevsky’s novels and short stories, so it was strange to be back in that city but decades later after the Russian revolution and the name changed to Leningrad. Despite never having visited I feel like, though the magic of books, I know the city a little bit.

Reading about the decimation of the city at the hands of the Germans during the war was worse knowing that I’d spent so much time reading fictional stories set in the same place years earlier.

The shared location also helped to highlight the difference in writing styles between Dostoevsky and Benioff. Not that anyone would really want to be compared too closely to a great Russian novelist, but given that books such as The Idiot will happily spend four or five pages introducing a relatively minor character, the comparison highlights how writing styles have changed over the years. I think classic literature’s meandering character descriptions and expositional sections would be swiftly edited out by a modern publisher. It’s debatable whether this is a good thing or not, but I think there’s a place for both approaches.

Fiction or reality?

The book cover quite clearly states that it’s a novel but the prologue is written from David Benioff’s perspective and he says how he wants to talk about his grandfather’s time in the war rather than himself. The main character is called Lev Benioff, presumably the name of the author’s grandfather.

I’ve done some very quick searching online and it seems that the story is a mixture of tales the author’s grandfather told him about the war and then a large chunk of fiction thrown in to make it all fit together.

They do say that all writing is autobiographical but I get the feeling that there’s quite a bit of fact mixed in with the more outlandish elements of the story. Then again, who’s to say the fantastical elements aren’t the reality?

Overall rating – 87 out of 100

I found this a very enjoyable story that was easy to pick up and hard to pull myself away from. It’s funny, violent, brutal and human. It’s impressive to be able to tell a funny story about a young man coming of age in such a bleak place. Some world war two stories can feel a bit of a drudge but this book is full of life and was a joy to read.