London, 1893. Mild-mannered watchmaker Cyril King harbours a secret wish to be an explorer. When he acquires a mysterious timepiece from a notorious criminal, Cyril gets his heart's desire, the clues he finds propelling him halfway around the world on the trail of a fabulous treasure.
On the borders of India and Afghanistan, Cyril meets a real-life adventurer who seems to be everything he aspires to. But high in the Karakoram mountains there are lessons to be learned, as nothing is quite what Cyril expects: neither the treasure, nor his companion, nor the life of discovery and excitement which he imagined -- and certainly not the deadly peril into which he stumbles with all the insouciance of the innocent abroad.
Meanwhile, intercut with Cyril's account of his 1893 adventures are the letters of famous explorer Sir Paul Linley-Small, written to Cyril from various points of the compass fifteen years later, as Small pursues a rare, perhaps mythical, creature. And as Small's tale grows ever more fantastic, the way in which the two narratives link with one another reflects on the nature of truth and the lives which we envisage for ourselves.