City of Thieves is sort of the novelistic equivalent of a 'buddy movie'. But in a good way. The unlikely buddies are Lev, a scrawny Jewish seventeen-year-old who has remained in the embattled city in the hopes of defending his country and proving his manhood, and Kolya, a handsome, boastful, charismatic Red Army soldier who looks like an Aryan poster boy. They meet in a jail cell where both fear they are about to be executed. But instead their lives are spared and they are given a perilous assignment by the secret police. Their task will take them from the dangerous streets of Leningrad to even greater danger behind enemy lines. There are gun battles, close calls, brutality, struggles against the relentless cold of the Russian winter, a high stakes chess game. Does this sound grim? Actually, it's not. In fact there are parts, especially in the dialog between Lev and Kolya, that are downright funny.
Benioff is a terrific story-teller. You barely have time to catch your breath after one close call before you're hurtled into the next one. But he also captures well the conflicting emotions of Lev, who narrates the tale, as he comes to grips with his fears, his curiosity and his grudging bond with Kolya. This book is a little dark to recommend as a 'beach read', although the descriptions of long,cold marches through the snowy Russian forests might cool you off on hot day. But I can definitely recommend it as a fast-moving, page-turning thriller with sharp insights on the complex bonds of friendship.