Deliver a dozen eggs by the end of the week – or die. In Nazi held Leningrad, where the daily meal could be a crust of bread, two young Russians face this directive in David Benioff’s City of Thieves. Lev, a seventeen year old who is caught stealing from a dead German, and Koyla, a handsome student who has deserted his military unit, are arrested but given a temporary reprieve from execution when the colonel in charge sends them on a mission to find the eggs for his daughter’s wedding cake.
The quest becomes an adventure riddled with the horrors of war and sprinkled with Gallows humor. Bernioff does not gloss over the misery or the atrocities of wartime, but he manages to insert a wry humor and laughter in the face of despair. A scrawny chicken they’ve stolen, hoping to nurse it into a fast egg-laying frenzy, turns out to be a rooster.
When the two young men barely avoid capture (and being eaten) by a team of cannibals, Benioff adeptly balances the cruelty with Lev and Koyla’s exciting escape -worthy of a Harrison Ford episode. They connect with a group of young revolutionaries and the story continues to detail the personal devastation of people struggling to survive in the midst of war, but with Benioff’s clever shifting back and forth from fear to nervous laughter.
The book has all the excitement of an action movie, and moves at that same fast pace. Each chapter has another obstacle to overcome with a little coming-of-age romance thrown in.
When you get to the ending, you might remember the premise Bernioff used to start the tale – asking his grandfather about the war. You might remember that his grandfather’s index finger is a stub, and that he is a master chess player. The last name of the story’s young hero is Beniov. I had forgotten, until Benioff cleverly brought it all back as he neatly tied all the loose ends. Still, the satisfying ending doesn’t seem contrived – more a comment on survival.
The Washington Post called the book a “tale that clenches humor, savagery, and pathos squarely together on one page.” The barbaric assaults are hard to take, but Berlioz tempers them with the personal courage and humor that makes it worth reading. Lev tells his war story, but also a memory of growing up – too fast.