City of Thieves by David Benioff / ★★★★★
One sentence summary: After being arrested for looting and deserting, instead being immediately sentenced to execution, Lev and Koyla are put on a mission by a Soviet colonel to find a dozen eggs for his daughter’s wedding cake.
“That’s our plan? We’re going to walk fifty kilometers, right past the Germans, to a poultry collective that maybe didn’t get burned down, grab a dozen eggs, and come home?
“Well, anything would sound ridiculous if said it in that tone of voice.”
Genre: Historical fiction
This was definitely one of the more unique World War II novels I’ve read, and it was fantastic. The story takes place over only a few days, but it is fully packed that never left a second for boredom. It isn’t a particularly fast paced story, and my copy is only about 250 pages, but it has an excellent balance of action and introspection, terror and moments of quiet. This is a thoughtful book and a funny book. It has just the right kind of humor, and just the right amount of it. There were moments that horrified me and moments that made me laugh out loud. This book is wonderful and sad, horrifying and heartfelt.
This book also had a minor romantic subplot that was unexpectedly sweet while at the same time appropriately gritty. I found this book delightfully unpredictable, but wasn’t surprised at the way it played out once I finished it. But when I go into a book I know is about World War II, or any fictional account of a historical war, it’s with a certain amount of knowledge of how I’m going to come out of it. If it doesn’t hurt, usually that means the book doesn’t live up to history or, perhaps, the spirit of what war is. This book hurt my heart and it warmed my heart in just the right ways.
The characters- WOW. The story is told from the point of view of Lev, a rather straight-faced seventeen year old boy, left alone in the Russian city of Leningrad once his mother and sister find refuge elsewhere. Lev is telling us this story from the present, looking back on his time in the war when he was naive and had big dreams that he realizes weren’t actually so big. His companion, Koyla, brilliantly juxtaposes Lev’s rather quiet, flat nature with exuberance and an interesting balance of cleverness and recklessness. I loved both of them. Vika, an almost reluctant addition to their journey, also deserves a mention for adding an excellent dose of badassery to their little group.
The writing was succinct, read smoothly, and appealed to the senses. Benioff does a fantastic job of describing fear, hunger, terror, relief, bodily afflictions- all the things that I believe a historical fiction author has to really nail to write an affective story about war. The writing told the story very, very well.
Was I satisfied?
Yes. I’ve had this book unread on my shelf for a whole FIVE YEARS and I can’t believe I only read it now. Definitely goes on my list of best World War II novels. I loved it.