Review: When the Nines Roll Over

when_the_nines_roll_over_coverWhen I like an author in a drippy, fangirl way, I feel obligated to appreciate all their work as a show of loyalty. *cough*Gaiman*cough* 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.

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. :P)

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 buy his books even if they were all the same. 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.
(If you know me, you know my soft spot for fairy tales. This one pays tribute to the classics: morality lessons; a devil ripping out eyes to make a necklace for his intended; and a claustrophobic setting. What more can you ask for?)

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 New York 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.
Recommendation: Read it, but only once. It’s like The Chronicles of Narnia. You’ll regret it if you read it again later. (Speaking of Narnia, I want to make an Aslan joke about “Zoanthropy,” but am holding it in.)

“De Composition”
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% 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—“something for everyone”—it’s a shame there’s such variation in the quality levels. Some don’t feel quite finished. With only eight stories, there is 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. (Or am I just fangirling again? He fixed A Game of Thrones, ya’ll!)

Overall: 3.8 (I really dig “The Devil Comes to Orekhovo.”)

Translation: Read it once and cherish the memory.

Spoiler for “De Composition”:
The last words are (paraphased): “I’ve fixed it—[gibberish/end]”. This is one notch from “Now I’m going to tell you where the gold is buried—[dies]”. The previous entry ended on a much more effective note.

Review: City of Thieves

city_of_thieves_coverI stumbled over City of Thieves when it came out and was early on the bandwagon. First to read and last to blog: a neat summation of how I run things around here. City of Thieves is simultaneously funny and sad, which is a hard balance to strike without becoming glib or irreverent. Much of the humor is dark, a little twisted, which is what you’d expect from a book set during a war.

To form an opinion of this book, you must read the first two chapters (at least). The first few pages are tired, because they’re the old: “Sit down, Sonny-boy. Gramps is gonna tell you ’bout the war,” (that’s sarcasm, not a quote). When you get to the story proper, you’ll forgive the clumsy framing device. At the outset, Lev Beniov is starving in Leningrad as the Germans bomb the city. One night, a dead German paratrooper lands near his apartment and he investigates the corpse with a few friends. He is arrested for looting and thrown in a cell with Kolya, a charismatic deserter, until the two of them get a reprieve. They are ordered by a colonel to find a dozen eggs for his daughter’s wedding cake:

“My men say there are no eggs in Leningrad, but I believe there is everything in Leningrad, even now, and I just need the right fellows to find it. A pair of thieves.” (35)

Note the page number of the above quote: 35. This book moves fast, but does not feel rushed. Situations and settings are quickly hashed out, but the characters are developed gradually through dialogue and well-placed details. For the first half of the novel, Lev and Kolya follow increasingly desperate leads to find their eggs, until settling in with a group of partisan fighters to play a longer strategy.

There are similar pairings of characters throughout literature, but Lev and Kolya are one of my favorite iterations of an old device. Lev is serious; he dreams of being heroic, but his courage has never been tested except in his own mind. Think of the kid from The Red Badge of Courage, but with a better arc. Lev turns down the easy, familial obligation (fleeing with his mother and sister) for the more patriotic obligation (defending his city).

I had no desire to tramp across the country with my mother and kid sister. I was seventeen, flooded with a belief in my own heroic destiny. 9

Kolya, by contrast, struts around with a calmness that baffles Lev. He can joke around with anyone, at any time, and seems alternately mature and naive.

[…] danger made him calm. Around him people would deal with their terror in the usual ways: stoicism, hysteria, false joviality, or some combination of the three. But Kolya, I think, never completely believed in any of it. Everything about the war was ridiculous: the Germans’ barbarity, the Party’s propaganda, the crossfire of incendiary bullets that lit the nighttime sky. It all seemed to him like someone else’s story, an amazingly detailed story that he had stumbled into and now could not escape. 51

He routinely gives Lev pep talks with questionable effectiveness:

“Listen to me. I know you’re afraid. You’re right to be afraid. Only an idiot would be calm sitting in a house knowing the Einsatzgruppen are coming. But this is what you’ve been waiting for. This is the night. They’re trying to burn down our city; they’re trying to starve us to death. But we’re like two of Piter’s bricks. You can’t burn a brick. You can’t starve a brick.”
I watched the candles gutter in the candelabrum, watched the shadows dance across the ceiling.
“Where’d you hear that?” I finally asked him.
“Which part, the bricks? My lieutenant. Why? You’re not inspired?”
“It was going along all right until then.”
“I like the bricks. ‘You can’t burn a brick. You can’t starve a brick.’ It’s nice. It has nice rhythm.”
“This is the same lieutenant who stepped on a land mine?” 135-36

At some point (the same point every time), I forget about the eggs when reading. There’s so much more to this novel than the surface quest for eggs. The conclusion brings the story together in a satisfying way without too much predictability. (Let’s face it: there’s only a few ways for a quest to end—either they will find the eggs, or they won’t—but the ending strikes a moving tone.)

Some of the Amazon reviews take off points for “vulgar” and “crude” language, but I don’t know that I’ve ever read a wartime novel that didn’t have a few F and C words. Full Disclosure: I have a dirty sense of humor, and it would be hypocritical for me to be offended by jokes so similar to my own. 😛 The language is standard for a wartime novel set in a starving city/countryside. Some events are shocking and disturbing, but they’re not disturbing because of the language.

Overall: 4.8/5

Translation: Read it. Read it. Read it.