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City of Thieves by David Benioff

July 3, 2016

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During the Siege of Leningrad (1941-1944), Lev, a young Jewish boy, is out after curfew to investigate a dead Luftwaffe pilot who has parachuted onto a nearby street. Lev is arrested by Soviet security forces and thrown into prison where he meets Koyla, a Cossack soldier imprisoned for desertion. There, the mismatched duo are brought before an intimidating NKVB colonel who makes them a deal: If they can retrieve a dozen eggs for the colonel’s daughter’s wedding in five days, they will be set free (eggs are a rare luxury in destitute Leningrad). If they fail to deliver the eggs, they will be executed.

David Benioff (The 25th Hour, Game of Thrones) is a master storyteller. As the two young men set off on their fool’s errand, you can feel the mechanics of the narrative propelling the plot forward. Every character, every scene, every encounter has a purpose. The eggs are the MacGuffin, but also work as a nice symbol for the desperation of Leningrad at the time. They are meaningless in a land of oppression, violence and death. But they mean everything. They provide two narrative gears: a very clear objective and a ticking clock.

The boys face a gauntlet of obstacles that test their courage, cunning and inner strength. We see a world destroyed, chaos, absurdity, moral ambiguity and characters who run the gamut from heroic comrades to embodiments of human depravity. The eggs, of course, are only the driver of the plot. The real story is about Lev, his coming of age and his relationship with Koyla.

This is a good read, fast-paced and masterfully constructed. It has the same mix of shocking violence and gallows humor that makes Game of Thrones so enjoyable. I can’t find any information about a movie option yet, but it would make for a good film.

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