City of Thieves

August 27, 2009
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Sometimes it seems like the world has too many World War II books. There are tales of heroic deeds, bloody battles, and desperate struggles galore, but there are few stories that revolve around a dozen eggs. “City of Thieves” tells the story of two unlikely boys on a mission to find one dozen eggs for a demanding officer somewhere in the frozen Russian countryside. Though the story is at times predictable, it's also very pleasing in an unconventional way. The plot is no remarkable tour-de-force, but the style of writing is fresh and captivating, and the characters are, overall, well-developed and humorous. Contrary to what the title might lead one to believe, the story has very little to do with thievery. While the search for eggs does propel the plot, the boys' stories and their relationship with one another and the others they meet along the way is what the story really derives its interest from. For those who are fans of romance, there is plenty of that, though in measured doses. For those who are fans of adventure, there is plenty of that too. And for those who are fans of comedy, there is an overwhelming amount of that. Those who are squeamish should beware of the blunt, even vulgar language that is sometimes employed by Benioff to give an authentic sense of wartime disregard for the usual niceties.
Though it can be stomach-turning, the total abandonment of manners and personal hygiene serves to make the story seem more authentic. This setting is often contrasted with that of pre-war Russia, as revealed in the characters' flashbacks and storytelling. The book also provides a very real glimpse into the barren wasteland that is war-time Russia in the winter. The simplicity of the landscape that the protagonists march through allows the author to focus on the characters themselves almost as if they exist in an emotional vacuum, with no one around for miles who even knows they're alive. Their relationship is the focal point, but they also meet other soldiers, civilians and even a few “comfort women” in their quest for the shelled delicacies. They, along with the few friends they accumulate along the way, regularly put their lives on the line and use their extraordinary resourcefulness and varied talents to escape an astounding number of close-calls. If the characters' marksmanship doesn't awe you, their creative use of chess-playing and literary knowledge will.
In the end, the search for eggs is much more than a search for eggs. Rather, it's a study of what war can do to a person in ways both good and bad, and how the value of everything, including eggs, can change in a moment.





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