I read David Benioff’s Book and…

…and it was pretty good!

Sorry to clickbait you like that, but I figured if I was going to raise a clickbait question like that in the headline, I should at least do my due diligence and answer the question immediately.

Before he was known as one-half of the showrunning team that ruined Game of Thrones, there was a time when David Benioff was known as the screenwriter behind the disastrous X-Men Origins: Wolverine. But still, before that, Benioff had published two novels and one short story collections. Foremost among these is his 2008 novel, City of Thieves, which purported to tell the story of Benioff’s grandfather in Russia during World War II.

City of Thieves 2

Both accused of crimes in wartime Leningrad, the book’s two main characters Lev and Kolya find themselves at the mercy of the Soviet Government – likely to be sentenced to death without a trial. However, the general who would sentence them gives them a second chance at life; his daughter is due to be married, and under the city’s lockdown, food is rationed and hard to come by. The general offers Lev and Kolya a second chance – find a dozen eggs so that the general can bake a cake for his daughter’s wedding. If they can’t find a dozen eggs, they will be sentenced to death.

Isn’t that a fun premise? That’s about as fun as 1942 Leningrad gets. If there’s anything to fault about the book, it might be that it doesn’t quite deliver on just how whimsy of a premise that is. That’s not too surprising, I suppose – it’s Russia during World War II, how whimsical can it be?

Lev is the working-class son of a subversive Jewish poet who was murdered by the NKVD, and Kolya is a motor-mouth graduate student of literature. They’re an amusing pairing, with Lev being something of a comedic straight-man to Kolya’s whimsical demeanor. It’s a duo as old as time; if this were a buddy-cop film, Lev would play by the rules and Kolya would be the loose cannon. If it were a comedy, Lev would be the straight-man and Kolya would be the wacky joke-maker. Naturally, in this setting and time period, the character types are more subdued and somber, but they’re certainly there.

Reunions 2

When you look at this book, it’s easy to see some of the promise of Game of Thrones early seasons. All you had to do was pair two characters together and send them on a journey and boom, you had classic television. Game of Thrones was absolutely loaded with these pairings. Tyrion and Bronn, Jaime and Brienne, Jon and Ygritte, Brienne and Podrick, Jaime and Bronn. While a fair amount of these characters’ on-screen chemistry can be credited to George R.R. Martin, who originally wrote them, one has to look to one of the best pairings: Arya and the Hound. In the books, these two characters separate in A Storm of Swords when the Hound (presumably) dies at a tavern fighting Arya’s old enemy, Polliver. On the other hand, the show delayed the character’s presumed death by eight episodes, allowing the relationship between the two characters to develop even further, before breaking our hearts even worse.

But whatever, I’m getting off-topic. My point is that Benioff clearly has some idea of the importance of two characters developing an inter-personal relationship as they embark on a journey together. As Game of Thrones went on, there were fewer of these kind of scenes, much to the show’s detriment. But this brings me to the premise behind his novel, City of Thieves.

It’s not a perfect book, but the two lead characters and the journey they find themselves on will likely immerse you enough to keep you reading. It’s a fun journey, and following these characters from the beginning of the story to the end is an absolute delight. If you don’t think you’d like it, then there is a chance you might not. But, if you think you would like it, then it’s more than you almost certainly will. I would absolutely recommend City of Thieves, especially if you’re able to listen to the audiobook, narrated by the illustrious Ron Perlman. (No, he doesn’t do a Russian accent but he doesn’t need to – the audiobook’s a slam dunk.)

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, following the story of a Jewish person during a WWII Nazi invasion, might be emotionally taxing, especially during these difficult times. So, if you’re someone who gets bogged down by reading about difficult times during difficult times, please keep in mind that this might not be the story for you – and that’s fine, of course.

There’s a lot of weighty themes. The character Kolya studies Russian Literature, and is constantly alluding to Russian classics. Storytelling is established as a crucial theme in a frame-narrative prologue, in which David Benioff speaks to Lev – his grandfather – and he explains that he wants to tell Lev’s story, but worries about telling it properly. Lev assures him that he’s a writer and he doesn’t necessarily need to hold fast and true to the “facts,” and encourages him to tell the story he wants to tell. Some people might find this disingenuous after Game of Thrones’ eighth season, but I think it sets this interesting frame narrative to this story that seems too whimsical to be true, and it puts questions of truth-versus-fiction into your mind from the get-go, which is helpful. I admire the idea of telling a story that is inherently based in fact, while acknowledging the creative liberties in making it more story-shaped. This might anger some, but they should note that the book is a novel, categorized as fiction.

City of Thieves 3

City of Thieves is a story about living through a dark time, but one that has a hidden sense of adventure and whimsy. In that way, the adventure the characters go on simultaneously feels like their way of coping with and confronting the horrors of the time period they live in. It’s a compelling journey – it’s a coming of age story, and it’s a story of friendship, war, and storytelling.

And it’s a really good book, I think. If you’re willing to set aside your preconceived notions from Game of Thrones Season 8 and their planned show Confederate – which I think we can all agree should never be made – then City of Thieves is well worth reading.

3 thoughts on “I read David Benioff’s Book and…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s