Novelist and screenwriter Benioff’s glorious second novel (The 25th Hour, 2000) is a wild action-packed quest, and much else besides: a coming-of-age story, an odd-couple tale and a juicy footnote to the historic World War II siege of Leningrad.
It’s New Year’s Eve, 1941, and Lev Beniov is alone in Leningrad. (Note that last name: This novel was sparked by tape-recorded memories of author Benioff’s grandfather.) The 17-year-old’s mother and sister were evacuated before the siege began in September; his father, a respected poet, was “removed” by the NKVD in 1937. Lev’s real troubles begin when a German paratrooper, frozen to death, lands on his street. Lev deserts his firefighter’s post, steals the German’s knife, is arrested by soldiers and jailed. His cellmate is 20-year-old Kolya, a boastful Cossack deserter, dazzlingly handsome in contrast to scrawny Lev, who hates his telltale big nose (he’s half-Jewish); their initial hostility turns into the closest of bonds. Sparing their lives, for now, NKVD Colonel Grechko gives them a near-impossible assignment in this starving city: five days to find a dozen eggs for his daughter’s wedding cake. There’s nothing doing on the black market. Then Kolya hears of a poultry collective…behind German lines. That’s where they must go, decides Kolya, and Benioff makes his boundless self-confidence entirely credible. Over half the novel happens in enemy territory. Lev and Kolya stumble on a farmhouse where four pretty Russian girls are being kept as sex slaves by a Nazi death squad. (The connection between sex and death is a major theme.) The slave-owners are killed by Russian partisans, one of whom is the deadly sniper Vika, a young tomboy who steals Lev’s heart. Despite a “parade of atrocities,” the pace will keep your adrenaline pumping right up to the climactic chess game between Lev and a fiendish Nazi officer.
This gut-churning thriller will sweep you along and, with any luck, propel Benioff into bestseller land.