Book Review: Benioff puts new spin on old tale

David Benioff, the successful author of three books, two of which have been adapted into films, has incorporated his screenwriting career into his latest novel, "City of Thieves."

Benioff began writing for the silver screen when he adapted his first book, "The 25th Hour," for a Spike Lee film. He was also responsible for adapting Khaled Hosseini's "The Kite Runner" for the screen.

In addition to these successes, Benioff wrote the screenplays for Troy and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The latter scripts shouldn't be the material for judgment though - everyone has their blunders and the rest of Benioff's work more than makes up for them.

"City of Thieves" begins with a young screenwriter visiting his grandfather to learn the story behind the first time he killed a man. Although the beginning is a bit cliché, it quickly escalates into the narrative of Lev Beniov, an awkward, inexperienced teen living in the lawless city of Leningrad during the Nazi siege.

Arrested for looting, Lev is thrown in prison with Kolya, a dashing Russian soldier, and together they're given a task which upon completion will clear their names.

Their task is far from safe and at times threatens their lives. In search of a dozen eggs for the wedding cake of a general's daughter, Lev and Kolya trek through Leningrad and eventually deep into the Russian countryside, following nothing but gossip and rumors.

The journey is nerve-racking, but Benioff keeps the story flowing, balancing Lev's wavering courage with Kolya's laid-back gallantry. The strange couple meets myriad characters ranging from cannibals to guerillas while readers learn the extent of Nazi occupation in Russia.

Benioff's history is subtle and unobtrusive; the novel doesn't read as historical fiction, but rather as a story of human growth and companionship with facts slipped effortlessly into the recesses of the plot.

The book is beautifully written; nothing is obvious, yet nothing is unclear. Like the historical allusions, details blend into the narrative naturally and leave no doubt about the personalities of characters. Lev's youth isn't disclosed directly, but readers come to realize his age through his questions and mistakes. It is easy to relate to Levy despite the extreme circumstances of his life. At only the age of 17 he suffers from the same insecurities young people do today.

Kolya serves to guide Lev without taking on an explicit fatherly role. It is easy to forget that Kolya isn't much older himself as he casually teaches Lev the secrets of everything from literature (he continuously quotes the unknown work of genius "The Courtyard Hound") to courage and, of course, sex. He fearlessly reassures Lev even when he anticipates doom himself. Kolya's loveable arrogance is charming and, though it occasionally gets him into trouble, generally wins him respect. Lev learns from his companion and by the end it is clear how much he has grown.

On the surface, "City of Thieves" may not have the most original storyline. It is a coming-of-age story complete with a guide and a few love interests, but the skill with which it is woven is ingenious. With humor and tragedy skillfully interlaced, the novel is nearly impossible to put down and reaching the end feels like saying goodbye to a friend.