Thursday, January 3, 2013

CBR V Review #2: City of Thieves by David Benioff

“Truth might be stranger than fiction, but it needs a better editor. ” 

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.

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