I am trying to think of a way to describe it in a way that won't make it seem super-depressing because it is not super-depressing. It is quite funny, heart-felt, and wonderful.
City of Thieves is set during the Siege of Leningrad. Lev, a 17-year-old volunteer firefighter, gets caught by the Russian police while stealing from the corpse of a German soldier. He is taken to prison, where he meets Kolya, a deserter. Instead of being executed, though, they are set the impossible task of finding a dozen eggs for a powerful colonel's daughter's wedding cake.
So Lev and Kolya are off to find eggs! They start in Leningrad then move to the country. Along the way, they meet people both terrifying and wonderful, and learn so much about themselves and other people and friendship and courage.
Ok, so I get it. City of Thieves sounds like every other coming of age story in the world. And fine, maybe it is a lot like them. But that doesn't mean that coming of age stories aren't still relevant. Just because the story has been done before doesn't mean that the execution can't be fresh and amazing.
And City of Thieves really was just that. Lev and Kolya are just such a great team, and I enjoyed every minute I spent with them. I loved sprinting through Russia with them. I could feel the cold of the Russian winter seeping through my bones while they tromped through the woods. I wept during a scene with a lonely boy caring for a chicken, and then laughed when Lev and Kolya were informed that the chicken was in fact a rooster.
It would be so easy for this book to be heavy and depressing. And I don't mean that in a bad way. Some books are very sad and heavy, but are amazing nonetheless. But City of Thieves is, at its center, about the friendship of two young men. And how all of us, even when starving and living hand-to-mouth and fighting a seemingly endless war, are still human. A 17-year-old boy still daydreams about naked women. A 20-year-old still brags about his sexual exploits while feeling insecure about his writing skills. People grow up in all sorts of settings, and just because they grow up too quickly in some ways, that doesn't mean that they can't still be very immature in others.
As in all stories about suffering through war, the poignancy in this novel comes from knowing that not everyone will make it to the end. But I guess when you are starving every day and living under siege, you in some ways have nothing to lose. And the way that the characters in this book seized their opportunities and made the most of them, even when they were really, really scared was... I mean, it was awesome. I would say it was inspiring, but as someone who avoids confrontation and generally does not seize the moment, I can't say that my behavior will change in future. But it was very cool to read about other people who are brave.
I thoroughly enjoyed the hours I spent with City of Thieves. I highly recommend it.