Thursday, March 26, 2015

I love this review from Publishers Weekly!

Race to Tibet

Sophie Schiller, Author

Fans of Jules Verne’s travel adventures will find Schiller (Transfer Day) has done a solid job of transforming an obscure real-life Victorian expedition into a thrilling yarn. A sex scandal blights the name of Prince Henri d’Orléans in 1888 Paris, and his father, the Duke of Chartres, fears that his continued misconduct will only further weaken the royalist cause. The duke’s solution is to make the prince’s inheritance contingent on his leaving France for a year to stay out of trouble, a plan that neatly coincides with explorer Gabriel Bonvalot’s desire to be the first Westerner to reach Lhasa. Gabriel lacks the funding to finance the complex and dangerous venture and agrees to take Henri along in exchange for the duke’s backing. Schiller makes the physical challenges of the trip palpable. There are occasional lapses into purple prose (“I’ve had enough of your callousness, you fiendish devil”), but for the most part Schiller succeeds in keeping readers engaged in the plot. (BookLife)

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Victorian Era's Fascination with Explorers

The late Victorian period was the first age of mass advertising. In previous decades, it was considered ungentlemanly to aggressively advertise a product. Now, for the first time advertising became powerfully visual: photography and art were used to sell goods and soon celebrities were sought to endorse products. And during the Victorian era, there were no greater heroes than explorers.

Explorers were the Victorian age's movie stars, rock stars, and astronauts. No detail about their life was considered too minor or insignificant. Their memoirs and travel books were best sellers and they spoke to sell-out crowds. From the fate of the missing Scottish missionary David Livingstone to Ernest Shackleton and his ill-fated voyage to the South Pole, the public's fascination with explorers knew no bounds.

My novel RACE TO TIBET tells the dramatic story of Gabriel Bonvalot, a Victorian age explorer who attempted to reach the Forbidden City of Lhasa on horseback. Accompanying Bonvalot was Prince Henri d'Orléans, a budding young explorer, and Father Constant de Deken, a Chinese-speaking Belgian missionary, and a team of hardy Turki caravaneers, Bonvalot made his way across the Tibetan Chang Tang during the height of winter, a heretofore impossible feat.

As can be expected, when he returned to France Gabriel Bonvalot scored his country's Gold Medal in Geographical Exploration as well as a slew of product endorsement, including French chocolate company Guérin-Boutron, Lu Biscuits, and a French wax company:

This chocolate label featuring Gabriel Bonvalot shows the rigors of traveling across the Tibetan high plain.
Bonvalot on the cover of Lu Biscuits. No explorer left home without his trusty Winchester or a box of Lu Biscuits.
Gabriel Bonvalot and Prince Henri on a wax label.

Even the bespectacled Belgian Missionary Father Dedeken who accompanied Bonvalot as official Chinese translator got his own product endorsement with French Chocolatier Félix Potin:

What other explorers scored product endorsement deals? Take a look at a few:

Sir Ernest Shackleton was a polar explorer who led three British expeditions to the Antarctic, and was one of the principal figures of the period known as the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration:

The heroic face of American Arctic explorer Robert Peary graced cigar boxes:

As Peary's partner, Matthew Henson was among the first explorers to reach the Geographic North Pole in 1909. He was later made a member of the prestigious Explorer's Club:

The Swedish explorer, Sven Hedin, scored multiple product endorsements, including German sewing thread. Here he is greeting Tibetans in what looks to be native dress:

Here is Sven Hedin promoting French chocolates:

And here he is endorsing a French beef consommé product (showing another exciting scene in Tibet):

Cigarette cards were perennial favorites. Here is a quartet of  Victorian giants, from the Tsar's favorite Great Gamer, Nikolai Prejevalsky, to the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen (who trounced Admiral Robert Falcon in the South Pole), to the Norwegian explorer and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Fridtjof Nansen, to the erstwhile Livingstone:

Nikolai Prejevalsky stalking through Central Asia.
Roald Amundsen

Fridtjof Nansen
David Livingstone

Here is the ill-fated Captain Scott and his Siberian pony "Nobby" on a package of Fry's Cocoa & Chocolate:

A rare image of Scottish explorer Hugh Clapperton on a cigarette card. Did Clapperton's image sell more cigarettes?

The mother of all cigarette cards: Marco Polo and the Great Wall of China:

A fitting tribute to Sir Richard Burton, who traveled in disguise to Mecca:

James Clark Ross discovered the position of the North Magnetic Pole in 1831:

Prince Luigi Amadeo (The Duke of Abruzzi) was an Italian mountaineer and explorer. He is known for his Arctic explorations and mountaineering expeditions, particularly to Mount Saint Elias and K2 in the Karakorums:


A Cigarette Card dedicated to Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world and the dream of every mountain climber-explorer:

And finally, a cigarette card dedicated to the fallen heroes on Mount Everest: George Mallory and Sandy Irvine:

Annie Smith Peck was an accomplished mountaineer and explorer, primarily in Peru and Bolivia:

You can read more about Gabriel Bonvalot's exciting expedition to Tibet in RACE TO TIBET, now available at Amazon and Barnes and Nobel:

 Race to Tibet

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Race to Tibet: Meet the Characters

RACE TO TIBET is an exciting historical adventure about a group of intrepid explorers headed by Gabriel Bonvalot, who attempt to become the first living Europeans to reach Lhasa, the mysterious capital of Tibet. Along the way they are besieged by ferocious winds, freezing cold, sandstorms, hostile Tibetans, but they are resolved to beat the odds and reach the legendary Potala Palace, the seat of the famed Dalai Lama.

Gabriel Bonvalot is a rugged French explorer who has accomplished many daring expeditions throughout Central Asia on horseback, especially one harrowing journey over the Pamir and Hindu Kush Mountains at the height of winter. After the death of Nikolai Prejevaksly, his Russian rival, he comes up with the daring plan to reach Lhasa, the forbidden capital of Tibet by trekking overland from Paris to Tonkin and veering off into Tibet. The dangers were real: the Tibetan authorities are known for putting to death any stranger caught infiltrating their holy city. For a man like Bonvalot, the challenge is irresistible.

Prince Henri d'Orleans is a pompous, incorrigible aristocrat who can't keep his name out of the gutter press. When he goes too far, his father, the Duke of Chartres, comes up with an audacious plan to get ride of him. He offers to finance Bonvalot's next expedition to Tibet on condition he takes along the wayward prince. After many scrapes and near-death experiences, Bonvalot must muster every ounce of self-control to not take the young prince to task.

Father Constant de Deken is a Belgian Missionary with an unusual dossier. He speaks fluent Chinese and knows every trick on getting under the skin of the Qing authorities. Bonvalot persuades de Deken to accompany him on his journey to Tibet and soon the fearless missionary is an invaluable member of the team. It doesn't hurt that he shoots with impeccable accuracy and rides like a cavalry officer.

Camille Dancourt is the beautiful, strong-willed wife of a French surveyor who went missing inside Tibet. At the outset, she is determined to join Bonvalot's caravan to search for her husband, but Bonvalot refuses, citing the danger. Instead of giving up, Camille comes up with another plan for infiltrating Tibet and soon their paths meet again…

Rachmed is Bonvalot's trusted Uzbek caravan leader. Rachmed is a giant of a man, as strong as Goliath and the veteran of many rough scrapes and near-death experiences; he even spent a month spent in the Mehtar of Chitral's dungeon. But when Rachmed goes missing on the Tibetan Chang Tang for 3 days straight during a blinding blizzard, Bonvalot faces the prospect of losing his companion forever…

Princess Pema is a beautiful Tibetan noblewoman who is literally running for her life. After escaping from the Chinese Ambans, she is desperately trying to make her way back to Lhasa and sees Bonvalot as the answer to her prayers. She joins his caravan, and when they discover her secret, they realize all their lives are in danger. And when Prince Henri falls head over heels in love with the Buddhist princess, sparks fly!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The curious case of Hezekiah Smith: The last Danish prisoner from the West Indies

The Danish West Indies was a Danish Colony in the Caribbean from 1670 until 1917, when the islands were transferred to the U.S. While I was growing up in St. Thomas, I always dreamed of writing my own historical novel that would bring the Danish period to life. During 5 years of research, I came across many strange stories, but none stranger than the curious case of Hezekiah Smith, who hailed from a somewhat notorious family and came very close to losing his head.
Danish history is a live and well in the Virgin Islands.

The story began in December of 1904, when a young female laborer from the St. Croix plantation known as Betty's Hope was found murdered. A search party was sent out and came back a short while later dragging a certain Hezekiah Smith, alias William Smith, alias Queen Mary’s son before Judge Anders Jensen Langkjær in Frederiksted's Ekstra Kriminalret (Special Criminal Court) to face charges of murder. After Smith was found guilty, he received the standard sentence for murderers in the Danish West Indies since the time of King Christian V of 1683: "to lose his neck and have his head mounted on a stake”.
Photo of Hezekiah Smith in court courtesy of Royal Danish Archives, Danish West Indies collection.

Fort Frederick is now a national park with its very own beach.
Luckily for Smith, the Danish West Indies had long ago stopped beheading murderers. Instead, Hezekiah petitioned the King to reduce his punishment to a life sentence. Instead of waiting for the pardon to arrive, he picked the lock of his cell door at Fort Frederick (pictured above) with a nail and climbed over a fence to freedom. A warrant for his arrest was immediately issued but Hezekiah was nowhere to be found – even with the promise of a reward of 20 dollars.
A criminal carried to prison St. Croix.
Hezekiah stole a rowboat and went to sea with a bottle of water and six coconuts. Nine days later he reached Puerto Rico where he found work as a day laborer on the docks. After some time, Hezekiah signed on an American schooner bound for Baltimore where he went ashore and found a new girlfriend. 

This relationship was not perfect either. In January 1908, Hezekiah was arrested and accused of murdering his new girlfriend, Minnie Smith. When the prison authorities recognized Hezekiah as the notorious murderer from St. Croix, he was extradited to Horsens State Penitentiary in Denmark.

During Hezekiah's first years in prison he was a restless prisoner. On several occasions he had to be punished. But after several years of good behavior, the warden recommended him for a pardon. By now (1919) the Danish West Indies had been transferred to the U.S., and the American authorities would not take Hezekiah back under any circumstances. And since Hezekiah had not requested to keep his Danish citizenship, he was now stateless. This cost him an additional four years in Horsens.
The Danish West Indies, consisting of St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John, were transferred to the United States in 1917.
Finally, on September 5th, 1923, King Christian X pardoned Hezekiah and the prison authorities came up with a creative solution for getting rid of him when they put Hezekiah on a Polish schooner bound for Trinidad. He was never heard from again.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Enter to win a free copy of Race to Tibet on Goodreads

Contest ends January 27th, 2015. Good luck!!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Race to Tibet by Sophie Schiller

Race to Tibet

by Sophie Schiller

Giveaway ends January 27, 2015.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Cover Reveal: Race to Tibet

Hello friends!
I'm very excited to share the cover of my new novel which is a historical thriller called Race to Tibet. It is the story of Gabriel Bonvalot, one of France's greatest explorers, who teams up with Prince Henri d'Orleans, a jaded, ill-mannered aristocrat, in an all-out effort to be the first living Europeans to reach Lhasa. The story occurs during the Great Game, the period of great strategic conflict and rivalry between Great Britain and Russia (1813-1907) for political and military control of Central Asia, including Tibet. Many explorers of Central Asia were really intelligence agents sent to gather information about troop movements and trade routes, which could be used for advancing armies. Race to Tibet focuses on these two adventurous Frenchmen, who are caught up in the Great Game when they are taken for Russian interlopers by Chinese Ambans (officials of the Qing Emperor who enforced the laws of Peking) who had never heard of France, and were determined to stop at all foreigners from entering Lhasa at any cost.

Tibet had long been the stuff of dreams. Buttressed by the Himalayas, and lying at an altitude of about three miles, Tibet was dubbed 'The Roof of the World' by Victorian travelers. Lying at 12,000 feet, Lhasa, is the world's highest capital and those with elevated blood pressures are urged to stay away. In fact, Lhasa had been closed to foreigners for so long, it was called 'The Forbidden City'. So little was known about Tibet that for many years it appeared as a huge white blank on official British maps, as if the entire area was covered with snow. Slowly over time the English in India devised a way to collect intelligence about Tibet by sending 'pundits', or Hindu technicians disguised as Buddhist pilgrims, to explore it and map it. These pundits would enter Tibet clandestinely, calculating distances by using measured footsteps which they recorded by means of specially-designed rosaries, as well as measuring altitudes by means of boiling water and recording the temperatures with a thermometer. Without a doubt, the fascinating adventures of the pundits whetted the appetites of Victorian explorers and before long, an international race to Lhasa was underway.

The Potala Palace has been luring explorers since time immemorial.

My novel, Race to Tibet, focuses on the journey of Gabriel Bonvalot and Prince Henri d'Orléans, a mismatched duo who attempted to reach Lhasa for different reasons. For his part, Bonvalot was already a celebrated French explorer, having crossed the Pamirs to reach India during the middle of winter, for which he was awarded the gold medal of the Société de Géographie in 1888.  Bonvalot was motivated by the desire to be first to reach Lhasa, to have his name go down in history, and to sell out lecture halls and travel books. On the other hand, Prince Henri turned to exploration as a means to escape a bad reputation he had earned in Europe as a brutal, ill-tempered dueler, a drinker, and a gambler.

Gabriel Bonvalot and Prince Henri d'Orleans: these guys hated each other in real life.

There's lots of drama and intrigue in the story, which I wove together from various sources. I spent close to three years researching this story, which I studied within the context of the Great Game. I brought to life real-life characters, including all the major players in Bonvalot's expedition, as well as invented some fictional characters, incluiding Princess Pema, a Tibetan Buddhist princess who I modeled on Yabshi Pan Rinzinwangmo, the real life daughter of the Panchen Lama (a religious figurehead in Tibet similar to the Dalai Lama) who is known as the 'Princess of Tibet' and is considered an important figure in Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan-Chinese politics, and is the only known offspring in the 620 years of history of either the Panchen or Dalai Lama reincarnation lineages.

Yabshi Pan Rinzinwangmo, the princess of Tibet.

I also added mystical elements of Buddhism, as well as romance to give the novel more drama, mystery, and intrigue. In many ways, Race to Tibet fits into the Lost World genre of novels like "King Solomon's Mines" by H. Rider Haggard and "The Lost World" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The story is replete with danger, suspense, and intrigue as the explorers inch closer to Lhasa. So join Bonvalot and Prince Henri on their expedition to the Roof of the World. In the pages of this novel, you will encounter an entire new world waiting to be discovered!

Yak at Yundrok Yumtso Lake the yak is perfectly suited to life at high altitudes.
Gabriel Bonvalot and Prince Henri and Father Constant de Deken were the first Europeans to reach Lake Namtso, due north of Lhasa.

Race to Tibet is scheduled to be released on January 26th. Currently you can pre-order the ebook for only $3.99 on by clicking on this link:  

Monday, September 15, 2014

More about Spy Island

In honor of Spy Island's virtual book tour, I decided to give a little more information about the story behind the story. So without further ado, I present:  

Where did the idea of the book come from?

Spy Island blends real life events with fictional elements. It started out from an inspirational idea that I could weave an adventure story around the fact that the U.S. acquired the Danish West Indies in 1917. A little-known fact was that the island of St. Thomas had a well-entrenched German spy ring operating out in the open. Using this detail, I wove a narrative about an island girl who rescues a German U-boat deserter who is later blackmailed by the leader of this spy ring into committing sabotage and murder. The result is an old-fashioned spy thriller with an exotic Caribbean setting.

Charlotte Amalie: the site of an important WWI German Ettapendienst base.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Abigail Maduro:    Odeya Rush
Erich Seibold:        Daniel Brühl
Nana Jane:             Alfre Woodard
Cooky Betty:         Octavia Spencer
Judge Henrik Neergaard:   Bernard Hill
Herr Dreyer/Langsdorff:     Christoph Walz
Jens Jørgensen:      Max von Sydow

Odeya Rush: Does she make the perfect Abby?
Alfre Woodard is an extraordinary actress and would make a splendid Nana Jane.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your novel:

During WWI on the island of St. Thomas, a beautiful Sephardic Jewish girl helps a German war deserter and becomes embroiled in a German spy's plot to take over the Danish West Indies.

German actor Daniel Bruhl: would he play a convincing Erich?

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Three years.

Who or What inspired you to write this book?

Ever since I was a child growing up in Charlotte Amalie, I longed to know what life was like back during Danish times. When I grew up, I turned my obsession into a full-time job when I began researching and writing Spy Island, (which is called "Transfer Day" in the Virgin Islands). In the book, the reader will be transported back in time to a tropical Danish sugar colony in the West Indies at the height of the Great War when German spies operated throughout the Caribbean and Latin America under the noses of the authorities.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

"Spy Island" is historical fiction with espionage and romance elements, comparable to "Circle of Spies" or "Ring of Secrets" by Roseanna White, or "Spy of Richmond" by Jocelyn Green.

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?

Readers who love the Edwardian period through WWI will love "Spy Island" because it immerses the reader in that era. The period dancing and music, horse carriages, steamship travel, victrolas playing in the background…
"Spy Island" also boasts an international cast of quirky characters that range from a witty Irish sailor to Old World Danish characters, German spy characters, colorful West Indian characters and a spirited heroine who will capture your heart. So pour yourself a rum & coke, add a twist of lime, and let yourself be transported back to the old West Indies. You'll be in for an exciting adventure!

The Danish West Indies is a location rarely used in novels, movies, and plays.