The Snow Thief
When a little boy is found with his neck broken, Lhasa detective Shan Lia leaves her broken past behind and throws herself into the investigation. He is the fifth child to die the same way in as many weeks.
But Lia’s superiors don’t want her looking for a serial killer. They don’t want panic and hysteria rolling across the country. They threaten Lia, giving her no choice but to turn her back on bringing the killer to justice. Until another boy is murdered. Then another.
Risking her life, Lia pursues the killer. With spies in the monasteries of Tibet and shadowy figures trying to thwart her hunt for justice, Lia faces the edge of the abyss to reveal the Snow Thief – but at what terrifying price?
Gripping, expansive & intense
Distinctive drama and compelling characters
Original, evocative, and beautifully written
A gripping, immersive story that will transport you to the snowy peaks of Tibet… A brilliantly realised thriller in a spectacular setting – I loved it
I will never forget this eye-opening, gripping – often terrifying – and disturbing story… not just a thriller but a story about surviving Chinese authoritarianism in Tibet, and how love can flourish in the most terrible places. In its power, universality and passion, it deserves to be an international bestseller
Heart stopping, eye-opening, brilliant and utterly gripping
Heart stopping and evocatively written. A triumph
The inspiration for this book came from a trip I took to Sikkim. I was walking towards a monastery deep in the snow-capped mountains with flowing streams, a crystal blue sky. Everything was serene until suddenly dozens of monks began pouring through the monastery gates, wielding heavy wooden truncheons as weapons. They were shouting, their faces puce with rage.
Shocked, I stopped to watch them tear down the street. A mob of enraged Tibetan Buddhist monks seemingly out for blood.
Apparently, they’d just heard that the Panchen Lama had arrived in town. But it wasn’t the Panchem Lama the monks knew and loved, it was a Chinese imposter.
When the whole story unfolded, I knew I had to write about it. Instead of Sikkim, however, I chose the setting of Tibet (which I had travelled through previously) and made the book about what might happen after the death of the Dalai Lama.
The boy knelt in the snow and peered through the gap in the tent. He knew he shouldn’t be here – he’d been warned off by his parents as well as the Abbot – but how could he not keep an eye on his brother? Pemba wasn’t very clever and needed looking out for or he’d get into trouble.
Tashi couldn’t see much, just the edge of a monk’s robe, so he parted the canvas a little further. A waft of incense drifted out; juniper and wild thyme. He rolled the scents over his tongue, revelling in the heady sensation that followed. He felt as though he could fly, soar into the sky and reel like an eagle above the spiky snow-capped mountains. For some reason incense had always had that effect on him, he didn’t know why. Pemba could stick his head in a bonfire of juniper, breathe as deeply as he liked and experience nothing but a blackened face and smoke-choked lungs. His brother was about as spiritual as a pile of yak droppings.
You’d never think they were twins. Where Pemba was broad and strong for his age with a ruddy complexion and an open expression, Tashi was small and had a narrow, intelligent face and bright black eyes. When people were told they were twins, they sucked their teeth and shook their heads, amazed that nature could produce such an anomaly.
Their mother likened Pemba to a sturdy buffalo, Tashi a busily hopping sparrow, and, despite their differences, they were the best of friends, the closest of brothers, and even when they fought, they made up quickly. They hadn’t spent a day apart since they were born. Well, aside from the time when Tashi had fallen ill last spring, but even then Pemba found a way to sneak into the monastery’s medical ward each evening.
Where was Pemba? Anxiety nipped Tashi’s belly as he swept his gaze around the interior of the tent, taking in the silent, formal atmosphere, the heavy rugs of yak wool on the floor, the wall hangings and the bronze cups smoking with juniper and rosemary twigs. The village had spent all day yesterday preparing for the lamas’ visit, dragging carpets from the attic of the monastery and beating them, dust flying, until even the dogs were sneezing. Bowls had to be polished, chairs cleaned, and plentiful cauldrons of yak-butter tea set to brew.
There were five lamas, all wearing maroon robes and huge yellow discs like half-suns on their heads. Tashi scanned their serious, unsmiling faces, and although some were thinner and more angular than others, they all shared the same brown, minutely lined skin, like the leather of his father’s shoes where the laces joined. They all looked the same age – ancient – and while part of him hated them for separating him from Pemba, the other felt a reluctant admiration that they’d made the journey from Lhasa in winter.
‘Special times require special deeds,’ Lama Sonam had told Tashi when he’d asked why they’d travelled at such a dangerous time. Snow drifts were deep enough to swallow a truck, avalanches were common, and the temperatures at a point where your cup of tea froze solid within minutes if left outside. Pemba and Tashi’s favourite game was throwing cups of boiling water into the air and watching the liquid freeze into minuscule crystals before it hit the ground.
‘But what if you’d all died?’ he’d asked, wide-eyed.
To his surprise, Lama Sonam chuckled. ‘We’d still be here,’ he said with a wink. ‘You just wouldn’t see us.’
‘All of you?’ Tashi was agog. ‘Like Lobsang Norbu?’
Although the lama’s expression didn’t change, Tashi got the feeling he’d said something important.
‘Are you talking about your Abbot?’ he asked. ‘Lobsang Norbu, who died two years ago?’
‘Yes. I dream about him a lot. He nags me about studying. He says I’m very bright but very lazy.’ Tashi pulled a face. ‘As if I didn’t know that already.’
Now, Tashi could see Lama Sonam sitting cross-legged on the floor to one side of the tent. He was looking intently at something just out of Tashi’s vision. All the monks from the monastery were here, squashed inside like a flock of sheep in a sheering pen, and although Tashi tried to peer past the bulk of one of the village monks he still couldn’t see what everyone was staring at.
‘This is the final test,’ said a crisp voice. It belonged to Dawa Rinpoche, the High Abbot, a venerable figure clad in a faded tattered robe that appeared as old as he was. His skin was thin over his bones, his shoulders stooped, but despite his fragile appearance, he had an aura not just of serenity, but of immense power. ‘Relax and take your time, my son. You have done well so far.’
Briefly, there was a swell of voices, excited and animated, but when the lama lifted his chin and looked around, everyone fell silent. Before he could change his mind, Tashi quickly slipped inside, closing the gap behind him and praying no one would notice the sudden draught of freezing air. On his hands and knees, he scurried around the edge of the crowd until he could see what everyone was looking at.
For a moment, he thought he was seeing things.
In front of the lamas, looking anxious and not a little scared, sat Pemba. He was poking some smooth grey river stones with a finger. Tashi frowned. He had poked those same stones the day before with Lama Sonam. Would Pemba remember which one to choose? He’d told him all about the games he’d played with the lama, but Pemba’s memory wasn’t great and he was bound to forget.
Just as he was about to drop on his belly and try and signal to Pemba, Lama Sonam raised his hand slightly and gestured No.
Tashi blinked. The lama hadn’t glanced once in his direction. Had he really seen him?
The lama extended his fingers a fraction. Made the faintest of shoo-ing motions. Go away.
With a shiver inside, he realised Lama Sonam had been aware of him all this time.
Another unmistakable gesture. Now. Before you get caught.
Tashi dithered briefly before deciding to play it safe and crawl back outside. Pemba was fine, he reassured himself. He just had to hope his brother passed whatever test it was. Everyone appeared to be willing him to pick the right stone, as they’d will their horse to win a race.
‘Do I sense an intruder?’
Tashi’s skin shrank at the voice. He didn’t know which lama had spoken, but it sent shivers through his soul. The tone sounded outwardly calm but Tashi could hear an enormous rage reverberating. The lama knew he was spying. They could sense him just as he sensed they weren’t what they were supposed to be.
He reacted purely on instinct, without thought. As fast as he could, he wriggled out of the tent, got to his feet and ran. He raced past his uncle’s house, startling the huge black mastiff into hysterical barks. Dodging around a row of little dwarf apple trees he swung right into the main street and away from the ceremonial tent. His breath was hot and raw in his throat as he approached his cottage, and although he wanted to run inside and bury his head in his mother’s lap, tell her how scared he’d been, his instinct warned against it.
Instead, Tashi paused at the stone wall and doubled over, panting until he’d caught his breath. Only then did he saunter inside and settle himself in the kitchen with his mother and grandmother. He tried to appear relaxed, as though nothing was worrying him, and it was only during the afternoon that he realised the women were doing the same. They were all biding their time, waiting for Pemba to return.
Finally the sun set behind the peaks of the Himalaya. From the monastery came the sound of trumpets. The streets became crowded with chattering villagers. Hundreds of butter lights were lit, cooking pots put on fires, butter tea to heat.
When Pemba finally came home, he was exhausted. Their father was half-carrying him, but he didn’t look unhappy about it. Immediately their mother began to busy herself preparing supper.
‘What were you doing in the tent?’ Tashi asked Pemba, his voice hushed. ‘Why was everyone looking at you?’
‘I don’t know,’ Pemba mumbled. ‘But it was worse than school. They never stopped asking questions.’
‘How I’d describe creation and dissolution.’
‘What did you say?’
‘That it was like striking a match and then blowing it out.’ He ducked his head, ashamed. ‘I know it was your answer, Tashi, but I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t think of anything else. Will you forgive me?’
‘Of course.’ Tashi smiled, glad to have helped.
‘They seemed happy with me.’ Pemba tucked hungrily into a bowl of stew. ‘I can’t think why. I’m not clever or anything. I’m just glad it’s over.’
They slept together as they usually did, curled closely like animals to keep warm inside a nest of blankets and sheepskins, and fell asleep with the sound of the wind moaning around the stone walls. Tashi woke once during the night, senses alert. Unsure what had disturbed him, he lay still, blinking in the dark. The fire had gone out but embers still glowed, reminding him of demon’s eyes. He felt a little frightened, but he couldn’t say why. He thought he saw the shadow of a maroon robe out of the corner of his eye but when he looked, nobody was there.
After a while, his eyes grew heavy and his senses dulled. Everything darkened, as if someone had dashed water over the coals, dimming the light. He tried to fight the closing of his eyes, sure there was someone in the room. He felt a brush of cold malignance against his mind and wanted to shout for help but his mouth wouldn’t work. He experienced a terrifying surge of fear and tried to move but couldn’t. He was losing the battle for his consciousness. Everything was fading to black. His senses were forced into a darkened silence.
When he awoke in the morning, Pemba was gone.