It is the dead of winter in Russia, at the height of the Nazi siege of the city of Leningrad during World War II. As German forces surrounded the city for 900 days, they choked off supplies to the point where 17-year-old Lev Beniov and friends eat “library candy” made from book bindings and bread made mostly from sawdust. They walk on the south side of the street because it’s safer during Nazi bombing raids. Schools and markets are closed, and life as they previously knew it is at a standstill. Lev’s mother and sister have fled to the countryside, where they thought they’d be safer, but Lev has dreams of being a wartime hero.
When Lev and his friends loot the corpse of a German paratrooper who falls near their apartment building, he is arrested and thrown into prison expecting to face the firing squad in the morning. (With the military overwhelmed and the police ranks decimated, there is no time for due process in Leningrad). Lev and his cellmate, Kolya, a handsome soldier who deserted his unit, are spared death for a very absurd mission: find a dozen eggs to make a wedding cake for the daughter of a Russian colonel, whose family thrives while the city around him starves.
The mission takes Lev and Kolya all over the city, where they encounter black marketeers and a couple whose hunger has driven them to extremely gruesome measures. Eventually, they head outside the city into German-held territory, and the quest for eggs becomes entwined with a life and death struggle against the enemy. Lev and Kolya join forces with Russian partisans intent on killing the leader of a Nazi death squad which has burned villages, turned teenage girls into prostitutes and murdered hundreds of innocent men, women and children. The climactic confrontation is tense and thrilling.
City of Thieves, by David Benioff, is historical fiction that gives readers a look into what life was like during the siege of Leningrad, one of the most famous conflicts of WWII. While following Lev and Kolya on their search for eggs, you will learn about Russian military tactics, the barbarity of the German invaders and the callousness of soldiers on both sides of the conflict. You will witness the inhumanity of war.
The novel is also a coming-of-age story as Lev wages an inner battle between courage and fear, a desire to live and an inability to face any more heartache. Lev also struggles between patriotism and disdain for Russia, a country in which his poet father was killed as an enemy of the state by tyrannical leader Stalin. His relationship with Kolya, who is just a few years older but ages more experienced in life, is both serious and darkly comical as they talk about literature, women and bodily functions.
I found the book interesting for the look into history, but I also enjoyed the adventures (or misadventures) of Lev and Kolya. They had the same love-hate rapport of many duos in books, TV and movies such as “21 Jump Street” or “The Other Guys” — albeit in much darker circumstances. Even though the book only covers about a week in their lives, I became very invested in them, cheering for them in dire situations, groaning over their missteps, and mourning their devastating losses. The ending is bittersweet, not quite happy but not entirely tragic either.
City of Thieves is 258 pages. I recommend the book for readers interested in history (especially World War II or Russia), as well as for anyone who likes adventure stories.