When I like an author, I feel obligated to appreciate all their work as a show of loyalty. David Benioff’s City of Thieves is one of my Top Five so it hurts to say things like: “When the Nines Roll Over is inconsistent” and “Benioff doesn’t get credit for a diverse cast of characters if they all have the same voice”. I could say worse, but this man played a key role in fixing A Game of Thrones for its small screen adaptation. He is on my good side. [NOTE: I WROTE THE PREVIOUS TWO SENTENCES LONG BEFORE THE FINAL SEASONS OF GAME OF THRONES.]
On a first read, this collection is fantastic. I was swept up in each story and excited by their quirkiness. Each has a simple premise, but all have some new angle. I’d have written this book a love letter, but it didn’t hold the same appeal when I re-read it ahead of this post. I noticed flaws I hadn’t noticed the first time when I’d been distracted by its novelty.
(Please forgive the Kindle location numbers instead of proper page numbers. I’ll find a paper copy and update the review. If you know my posting history, you know that if I don’t hit PUBLISH in five minutes, it’ll be another month.)
There are some bright spots:
“The Devil Comes to Orekhovo”
This story is my favorite of the collection. Certain thematic similarities to City of Thieves make me wonder if the innocent-soldier-plus-Russian-winter-plus-disillusionment trope is all Benioff can write. He pulls it off so well, that he could stick to this one thing and I’d still buy his books. The rising action of the story unfolds alongside a narration of an old Russian fairy tale. Though the protagonist knows the story, he doesn’t notice the parallels to his own predicament until it’s too late. This fairy tale pays tribute to the classics: morality lessons, a devil stealing eyes to make a necklace for his intended, and a claustrophobic setting.
Leksi, along with all his school friends, had eagerly anticipated enlistment. From the age of fourteen on, every girl in his class had been mad for the soldiers. Soldiers carried guns, wore uniforms, drove military vehicles. Their high black boots gleamed when they crossed their legs in outdoor cafés. If you were eighteen and you weren’t a soldier, you were a woman; if you were neither soldier nor woman, you were a cripple. Leksi had not been back to his hometown since enlisting. He wondered when he’d get to cross his legs at an outdoor café and raise his glass to the giggling girls. (Loc 580)
The protagonist meets a lion in a museum and also encounters The Lover (the best lover of the East Coast). It’s strange and unexpected and makes me believe that Benioff can write anything. The ending verges on cheesy, but this story contains one of my favorite descriptions:
If you are sitting in your home, late at night, alone, strange noises echoing down the hallways, disturbing your mind, and if you look out across the street, look through the window of a stranger’s apartment, the apartment lit only by the television’s static, and the stranger’s room glows a cool and eerie blue—that was the exact color of my father’s eyes. (Loc 1214)
“The Barefoot Girl in Clover”
First Reading: Fantastic. Second Reading: Hacky. Benioff tries to sucker-punch the reader with his sad-sack ending, but a second reading betrays how much of the beginning/middle is shaped to make the end more tragic. It doesn’t feel like a story that develops organically. Writers should be less obvious when tying strings to a reader’s emotions.
I’ve met so many people who love this story that I’m second-guessing my dislike. This story is built of journal entries by a man afraid to leave his bunker post-disaster. He keeps a journal on his computer, but his computer develops a bug and his text is slowly corrupted. The text breaks down into gibberish over the course of the story, culminating in a sour note at the end. I checked the ones and zeros to see if there was a hidden layer in binary but turned up nothing. (A spoiler is at the bottom of the post. WordPress won’t let me play with font colors unless I give them more money.) Cutting the final entry makes this story 100 percent better. Am blaming this one on Benioff’s editor. I’ve read a fair amount of post-apocalyptic fiction and this story read like all of them mashed together, but with the hint of a twist. The rest of the collection is original, if not stellar; this is the odd one out.
“Merde for Luck”
This one is rough. I cried buckets. It’s arguably just as gratuitous as “The Barefoot Girl in Clover,” but the writing and characters are better. It taps into the horror and fear of the early days of the AIDS crisis and the ending will rip your heart out.
This is an impressive bunch of stories. Even when they miss their mark, they win points for originality. There’s a lot of variety in this collection; it’s a shame there’s such variation in the quality. Some don’t feel quite finished. With only eight stories, there’s no room for filler. I’ve left the titular story unmentioned. Technically, it’s quite solid, but the subject matters renders it completely neutral in my eyes. It’s a story that, were it written any less skillfully, would hold zero appeal. Somehow Benioff makes it work.
Overall: 3.8 (out of 5.0) I really dig “The Devil Comes to Orekhovo.”
Spoiler for “De Composition”—
The last words are (paraphased): “I’ve fixed it—[gibberish/end]”. This is on the level of “I’m going to tell you where I buried my treasure—[dies]”. The previous entry ended on a much more effective note.