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Bookmarks Issue: 
36-Sept-Oct-2008
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A-City of ThievesDavid Benioff’s first novel, 25th Hour, was adapted into a film, with the screenplay written by the author. He also worked on the scripts for Troy, The Kite Runner, and the forthcoming Wolverine.

The Story: During the brutal Nazi siege of Leningrad, Lev, the son of an executed, dissident Soviet Jewish poet, is arrested while looting the body of a German paratrooper. While awaiting his fate, he is thrown into a cell with Kolya, a Polish ladies’ man accused of desertion. Before the pair face the firing squad, however, they are given an odd sort of reprieve. The daughter of a powerful colonel is about to be married—and needs a dozen eggs for her wedding cake. Eggs are nearly impossible to find during the siege, so the colonel offers Lev and Kolya their freedom in exchange for completing the mission. What ensues is a journey through one of the most violent and grim episodes of the past century and the alternating absurdities and atrocities of war.
Viking. 272 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0670018708

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"From this gruesome and bizarre state of things, drawn from one of the nightmare passages of the 20th century, the siege of Leningrad, comes an immensely readable novel that celebrates humanity while at the same time exposing the depths of cruelty to which human beings can sink. … [Benioff’s] careful attention to landscape, his research into the horrors of the siege, and his deft use of vivifying detail give the novel an unexpected and very welcome richness." Charles Matthews

Denver Post 4 of 5 Stars
"City of Thieves doesn’t start out feeling as though it will resonate; it feels like it will be an interesting, though quick, read. But because the reader becomes fully invested in its characters, it ends up packing much more of a punch than initially expected." Robin Vidimos

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"This is no postmodern coquetry. … In contrast to the piety of so many of today’s historical novels—their facts unimpeachable and their souls somewhere in the library—Benioff’s book lets its characters inhabit the human condition in all of its sometimes compromised versatility." Boris Fishman

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"City of Thieves is a coming-of-age story brilliantly amplified by its war-torn backdrop. … Benioff’s finest achievement in City of Thieves has been to banish all possible pretensions from his novel, which never wears its research on its sleeve, and to deliver a rough-and-tumble tale that clenches humor, savagery and pathos squarely together on the same page." Thomas Meaney

Los Angeles Times 3 of 5 Stars
"What does distract ruinously from the power of City of Thieves is the barrier between its characters’ emotions and the reader’s. … It is this numbness, more than anguish or fear, that the reader shares with Lev; and without our ability to be moved by his predicament, this well-crafted tale about the endless opportunities for suffering weakens into a harmless entertainment." Donna Rifkind

Critical Summary

Readers have lately been exposed to a great deal of postmodern historical fiction, stories whose focus on the past merely reveals the astigmatism of an unreliable narrator. Perhaps tired of squinting at history, most reviewers found David Benioff’s novel refreshingly clear. With a framing device that serves to warn the reader that the author’s life is far removed from that of a Russian partisan, the narrative of City of Thieves lacks much of the anxiety over the inaccessibility of the past that has plagued recent novels of the genre. Critics also felt that Benioff avoids another form of pretentiousness, the heavy-handed tone that characterizes many historical novels (particularly those about war). However, this deftness makes the plot of the novel move along far too easily; one skeptical critic compared it to a Hollywood "buddy story." However, most reviewers seemed eager for Benioff to write the script.

Also by the Author

AZ-25th HourThe 25th Hour (2001): Twenty-seven-year-old drug dealer Monty has 24 hours left before he is sent off to prison for seven years. So he and his two best friends—one a bond trader, the other a high school teacher—have one last night out on the town in New York City, a night that builds to a powerful climax.