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Cannonball Read V: City of Thieves by David Benioff

By Katsings | Book Reviews | January 9, 2013 | Comments ()


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I've been big on the audiobook thing of late. My commute isn't long, but the monotony of the same drive every day wears on me, and in order to stay awake, I need something that takes my focus. Music lets my mind wander - a book, especially a good one, will grab me and sharpen my thinking so that sleep is a faraway thing. A book like this is *perfect* for this purpose, as it grabs you and never lets go. The only uncomfortable thing is when things get emotional, and you are sitting there in the driver's seat hoping none of your fellow commuters look over to watch you laughing at this character, sickened by this one, or saddened by another. Though honestly, you only have time to think about this after the fact - you are too busy enjoying whatever you are feeling to notice other people in the moment.

City of Thieves is set in Russia during WWII, with most of the action happening in and around Leningrad. The story takes places over the course of a week during the siege of Leningrad (essentially - there is some time filled in both before and after the bulk of the action) and follows the journey of two unlikely comrades (pun intended), Lev and Kolya. Lev, a teenaged Jew, and Kolya, a 20 something soldier/writer/lothario, are thrown together early in the book, given a reprieve from the punishment due to them for looting and desertion, respectively. Instead of a bullet in the brainpan, they are given a rather ridiculous mission by an important colonel - find him a dozen eggs for his daughter's wedding cake, and live. In a city under seige, this is no easy task, and the search creates a very interesting story, part war story, part coming of age, part road trip buddy comedy.

This book relies entirely on how much you care about Lev and Kolya. There are supplemental characters, a few of which are important, but really, if you are committed to these two boys, you're in for the long haul. They are a delight as a pair - mismatched in the best kind of ways. Lev is shy and awkward, wanting to keep his head down and do this thing, but lacking the courage to really get things accomplished. Kolya...he's a dynamo. He's a brilliant manipulator, and I mean that in the best way. He has that natural talent some are born with of making anyone like you and listen to what you have to say, even if it's a pile of bullshit. Charismatic seems an inadequate descriptor. The two make a dynamic and interesting pair, one you'd follow anywhere just to hear more stories.

This is saying something, as some of the parts of this story are incredibly brutal. Seige ridden and war torn, Leningrad and its surrounding areas offer a lot of darkness for the reader to endure on Lev & Kolya's journey, but it's never bleak enough to make you want to give up. This is a real credit to Benioff, as in other hands, some portions of this tale would turn people off and make them give it up. Despite anything and everything the boys endured, I literally could not turn this off. I was excited to get in my car and hear the next bit, and put off listening to the end because then I knew it would be over. That's a hell of an accomplishment.

It's also important to note the narration here, as this is an audiobook, and therefore important. The book is read by Ron Perlman, Hellboy himself, and he is one of the best narrators I have ever heard. He manages to differentiate between characters without doing voices, so you are never lost, but you aren't thrown by "this is a man being a woman" or anything like that. His pronunciation of the Russian is gorgeous. He has such a great sense of mood and timing, playing each scene for the right beats, and letting chapters, or even just big moments, end with the grace of a fade to black. I'm actually seeking out more books read by him, whether I like the subject matter or not - he was *that* good.

This book is absolutely not to be missed. If you have a problem with violence, or any graphic descriptions of death and/or torture, this might be one you need to skip, but it would be a damned shame. It's worth it, every moment. If you love good literature and well developed leading characters, pick this up immediately.

This review is part of the volunteer Cannonball Read V. Read all about it.

For more of Katsings's reviews, check out her blog, Hope Springs Eternal

(Note: Any revenue generated from purchases made through the amazon.com affiliate links in this review will be donated in entirety to the American Cancer Society.)


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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • Put it on hold at the library... Thanks!

  • baxlala

    I absolutely LOVED this book. It's been a couple of years since I read it, however, so it's definitely time for a reread. Great review and thanks for the reminder that this book is out there!

  • denesteak

    omg, this sounds sooo good. I love weird set-ups like that too. I'll definitely check this out. Thank you so much for reviewing!

  • c

    Discovered it after reading the 25th Hour, which I LOATHE, City is completely different in tone.

    Don't quite understand the warnings for the squeamish, I don't recall many if any overly gooshy parts in the novel.

  • kirivinokur

    The butchers?

  • KatSings

    The only part that made me truly uncomfortable was when the girls in the cabin tell what happened to one of them. That's all I'll say to prevent spoilers, but I have a very vivid imagination, and that was horrifying.

  • Rudra Banerji

    My wife and I listened to this on our way up to Michigan to go camping one summer. We had to turn it off because it had us crying during an incredibly beautiful day. It's an outstanding story and a lovely performance.

  • Rooks

    Ooooh, I ate this one up in three days. Such a surprisindly wonderful, teary-eyed time I had.

    Just very recently at a bookstore, I stood next to an older gentleman who, like me, was just looking without any intention of buying anything. When he ended up with this one in his hands, I worked up some courage (other socially awkward people will know what I mean) and uninvitedly and spontaneously advised him to "buy it". He looked at me in surprise and I nodded toward the novel and said "Seriously, buy it. You're going to love it."

    I wish this wonderful review had existed earlier, I could've used these words to describe the plot and the general feeling of this story so much better than I did to him. I think he left the store without the book and with the impression that it's mainly another historical drama about two guys fighting for survival in a Russian city during the war. Sighs. Good thing I never wanted to be a shop assistant anyway...

  • JoannaRobinson

    Love this book! Fantastic review, Katie!

  • Captain_Tuttle

    I will definitely have to check this out. Thanks for the great review.

  • One of my absolute favorite novels!

  • kirivinokur

    I read this book and absolutely loved it, despite initial reservations I had about reading something by "the guy who wrote that Wolverine movie" (this was pre Game of Thrones). You're right in saying that you need to be invested in Lev and Kolya for the book to win you over. Thankfully, they make a wonderful pair. An exciting, unexpectedly goofy, read.

  • kirivinokur

    It looks like he also wrote The 25th Hour and The Kite Runner screenplays, and is married to Amanda Peet. Not too shabby.

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