If you’ve watched Game of Thrones (and I hope you have), then, perhaps unbeknownst to you, you’re familiar with author David Benioff’s work. Benioff is one of the show’s executive producers, showrunners, and scriptwriters. Along with his partner, D.B. Weiss, he has written a majority of the episodes, which are adapted from George R. R. Martin’s novels.
In addition to writing Game of Thrones, Benioff has written several screenplays (Troy, The Kite Runner, Wolverine) and three books (The 25th Hour–for which he also wrote the screenplay adaptation, the shorty story collection When the Nines Roll Over, and City of Thieves).
As an aside: he’s only 43 years old (um, when did I get so old that it became OK to say that someone is only 43?), and he’s married to Amanda Peet. The dude is doing all right for himself.
City of Thieves has been on my reading list for a couple of years (long before I made the connection to Game of Thrones), but, for whatever reason, I never got around to reading it. But, this past week, I was in the mood for something short, quick, and action packed, and this fit the bill.
The book begins with a single, roughly present-day chapter, written in first person. David goes to visit his grandparents in Florida and says to his grandfather, “I brought a tape recorder with me. I thought maybe we could talk about the war.” For a week, they sit together every day, and David records his grandfather’s stories.
When his grandfather finishes, David asks him questions about the details—“names, locations, weather conditions on certain days.” His grandfather blows him off (“It was a long time ago . . . I don’t remember what I was wearing. I don’t remember if the sun came out.”). But David wants to get it right. His grandfather replies, “You’re a writer. Make it up.”
The next 250 pages of the book tell the story of “one week in 1942, the first week of the year, the week he met my grandmother, made his best friend, and killed two Germans.”
In 1942, Lev Beniov is seventeen years old, living by himself in “Piter” (as St. Petersburg was dubbed by locals at the time) during the Siege of Leningrad. His father, a famous poet, has been taken away and killed by the NKVD, and his mother and sister have fled the city. It is a miserable time—it’s freezing cold and, even with a ration card, there is very little food.
One evening, Lev sees an ejected German pilot floating to the ground. The pilot has frozen to death as he parachuted down. Lev and his friends loot the body. The police come, and Lev tries to escape, but he is caught. It is past curfew, and Lev was stealing (a double whammy!). Either infraction is a death sentence. But Lev is lucky.
He spends the night in prison with one other prisoner, the “deserter,” Kolya. The next morning, Lev and Kolya are taken to see a colonel, who is planning his daughter’s wedding. He wants to ensure that, despite the war, she has a real wedding. He orders Kolya and Lev to find a dozen eggs for her wedding cake, a nearly impossible task. If, by week’s end, they return a dozen eggs to him, he will give them their ration cards and spare their lives. Thus begins Lev and Kolya’s journey together.
Rating: 3.5/5 🐣
As I had hoped, the book is short, quick, and action packed. Lev and Kolya’s mission is punctuated with cannibals, sex, shoot-outs, and bad jokes. They become best friends, Kolya gives Lev an education in ladies, and Lev meets his future wife. It’s not particularly moving, but it is a lot of fun. And it’s a pretty informative look at life during the Siege of Leningrad.
The story is pretty outlandish, so to think that it is based on his grandfather’s experience is cool. Unfortunately (but not surprisingly), according to this interview with Benioff, the book is pure fiction. The bit at the beginning about David talking to his grandfather is as made up as the rest of it. (I hold on to a bit of hope, though—according to this New York Times reviewer, “In the bound galleys of the novel he thanked his grandfather for his ‘patience with my late-night phone calls’ about the blockade.” The acknowledgments in the book don’t include that note. So, it’s a mystery).
Who should read it: Len (based on your comments on other posts, I think this is one you’d enjoy); Sergio (i.e., fans of Game of Thrones who enjoy non-fiction); people who like historical/war fiction.
Random nerdy gamer fact: The book inspired The Last of Us, a critically acclaimed 2013 video game:
One final note: Thank you, Susan, for the recommendation!