I’ll just start by saying it – I loved this book. That the plot sometimes strained my willingness to suspend my disbelief didn’t, for one second, diminish the pleasure derived from the quirky, human characters set against a tragic – often terrifying – historical backdrop.
Set in and outside of Leningrade during The Siege, I wasn’t too sure I felt like reading “another Nazi book.” We’ve been inundated with them lately. I didn’t think there could be a fresh story to be told. I knew about the Siege of Leningrad in the way that I know about most of the history I learned in school – in other words, superficially and pedantically. I knew that the Nazis created a blockade, cutting off supplies and strafing the city regularly, causing widespread death and deprivation. City of Thieves puts a human face on the suffering this caused through the main character, Lev Beniov (yes, the name is strikingly similar to that of the author who, apparently, relied on his grandfather’s first hand experience for at least some of the background).
The plot of City of Thieves is fairly straightforward. Lev is arrested for looting and sent to jail, where he meets his mentor and sidekick, Kolya Vlasov. The two are given an opportunity to avoid execution by carrying out a seemingly impossible task. The fast-paced plot deals with the trials and tribulations of their efforts to accomplish this task. I’ll leave it to you to discover whether or not they succeed.
If this were merely a plot-driven novel, there would be little point in reporting on it. While the story draws you in and (at least in my case) keeps you reading late into the night, it is the deft juxtaposition of humor to heartbreak that brings the characters to life. It is obvious that Benioff has done a tremendous amount of research into the facts of the time period, but the research never overpowers the story. The spirit of the Russian people, as personified by Lev and Kolya, comes through clearly but unsentimentally.
At times terrifying, at others laugh-out-loud funny, I highly recommend that you read this historical thriller.
*If you’d like to know a little more about the Siege of Leningrad, I recommend looking at the amazing photos found at http://www.armchairgeneral.com/forums/showthread.php?t=75936 . Be sure to scroll to the bottom of the page where you’ll find photographic collages in which the photographer, Sergey Larenkov, has embedded historic photos from the Siege into modern day photos of St Petersburg. Really stunning!