The city in City of Thieves is Leningrad. The year is 1941, the Siege. It's only autumn but already every piece of wood in the city has been burned for warmth, mud supposedly laced with sugar from underneath a former food storage locker is selling as a delicacy, family members and friends seem to disappear daily, survival is an hour to hour struggle and the authorities are on the prowl for black marketeers, Nazi sympathizers and in general anyone who could qualify as a usual suspect.
Seventeen year old Lev Beniov is arrested for violating curfew and for the theft of government property which is a capitol offense in this beleaguered city. His Mother and sister were evacuated out of Leningrad but he stayed behind almost as a lark. In jail Lev meets a charismatic con-artist, Koyla who becomes a combination of mentor, father and best friend to the boy. Koyla is in custody for desertion, another death sentence offense. Not the best influence for the impressionable, directionless Lev.
In the first movie moment in the novel we find ourselves in a very dark version of a Hope and Crosby Road picture. Lev and Koyla are offered a temporary stay of execution if they can come up with a dozen eggs for a NKVD Colonel. NKVD are the Russian initials for what was The People's Ministry for Internal Affairs. They were a public and secret police force. The Colonel who in the Road version of this story would have been played by Walter Slezak, wants the eggs for his daughter's wedding cake. Of course. The world is collapsing. People are starving in the streets and the enemy is pounding down the gate but the Colonel needs a wedding cake.
Finding eggs during the Siege is a search for the Holy Grail if ever there was one. Lev and Koyla's quest will take them behind enemy lines, into the devastated Russian countryside, they will mix with partisans, rebels and cannibals, kill a couple Nazis, love, lose and grow up. That is the real point of this boys own adventure. City of Thieves is the story of what happens to Lev's idealism and youth on the Eastern Front.
City of Thieves is fast paced, has excellent and believable dialog and memorable characters. For all the camaraderie and snappy patter author David Benioff hasn't skimped on the horrors and suffering brought on by WW2 and the Siege of Leningrad. Benioff may have made City of Thieves screenplay ready with impossible situations and skin of our teeth escapes but he also made it bittersweet and surprisingly touching.
P. S. Among quite a few screen writing credits David Benioff has is one that I find especially exciting. Benioff is one of the writers working on HBO's adaptation of Game of Thrones. That is book one in the epic George R. R. Martin fantasy series. I have to say I loved, loved, loved the novels in the Song of Fire and Ice series and I cannot wait to see A Game of Thrones on television.
And my friend the next novel in the Song of Fire and Ice saga will be on sale July 12, 2011. It's called A Dance With Dragons.