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Underground Reading: Tourniquet by Kim Lakin-Smith

TourniquetOn the surface, Tourniquet (2007) is everything that terrifies me, down to the tips of its pointy-pointy vampire fangs. But beneath the glowering dark fantasy exterior, Kim Lakin-Smith has written something that's both complicated and conceptually ingenious.

The set-up is straightforward. Druid is one of the four Dragoth - the musician/vampire overlords of Renegade City (once known as Nottingham). He's a pale-skinned, fanged warlock, prone to scribbling his broodings in a black leather book and gazing pensively over the landscape.

Druid's brother, Roses, is the most overlordy of all the musician/vampire overlords. At the start of the book, Roses has died under mysterious circumstances, this (not unfairly) has brought on a few months of extra-broody scribbling and gazing on Druid's part.

Druid finally skulks into action, spurred by the venomous sarcasm of Roses' former girlfriend. Druid also misses Roses and, even through his haze of broodiness, he can see that there are troubles in Renegade City. Druid believes these are connected. By solving the mystery of Roses' death, he can cleanse his beloved home of its corruption.

Druid comes down from his ivory tower and stalks about for a while. As he suspected, Renegade City does have its problems. The city was founded on four key tribes of Gothic archetypes (Fey, Trawlers, DarkLed, Castclan) and held together by a new religion called Belief. Now, the belief in Belief is crumbling and the tribes are riddled with internal schisms. More than that, a fifth tribe, the Skinwalkers, has come along, werewolf-biker types with their own belief: anarchy. 

Druid's not on his own. He's joined by a foxy young Fey girl, Jezebel, and a geeky Castclan wizard nicknamed IQ. The threesome (mostly the brooding vampire and the svelte young fairy) explore the city, learning more of its shady secrets and ambling slowly towards resolution. The murder-mystery plot is merely a McGuffin, an excuse for Druid to wander his own dwindling empire and muse how it came about. Nor is it ever neatly resolved: Tourniquet ends on a series of cliff-hangers (physical and emotional) that make good on its promise to be one of many "Tales of Renegade City".

Thus, solely taken at face value, Tourniquet is about an ageless vampire lord, a manic pixie (literally) dream girl and a brooding, potentially-endless quest. But taking Tourniquet at face value would be an enormous mistake: the novel has more layers than an unpronounceable Italian dessert.

The first deals with the very nature of Renegade City. Although set in an ambiguously futuristic time, there's not much that's pushing the technology envelope - cybernetic fairy wings, perhaps. Renegade City was (and is) Nottingham in its not-so-distant past. Moreover, as Tourniquet clicks into gear, it becomes apparent that this isn't an entire world of Shadowrun - just Renegade City. The rest of the world? Totally normal. They send tour groups.  Immediately, Tourniquet steps away from the false pomposity of most dark fiction. This isn't a book about the secret masters of the world, this is about a bunch of folks huddled together in one tiny corner of the dance floor.

Ms. Lakin-Smith also explores the notion of inclusivity. Renegade City was founded as a home for the outsider, the rogue, the renegade, but in order to "make it work", a process of standardized deviation needed to be put into place. Thus the four clans - each mirroring an existing, popular, functional subculture. The Skinwalkers were deemed unworkable and individual oddities (my favorite is the elderly gentleman that's become a dragon) don't fit in. Druid, one of the city's founders, slowly realises that Renegade City's true rot has been there from the beginning. A city built for outsiders has the choice between being ironically exclusive (and functional) or a philosophically consistent (and disastrous). 

The book's greatest act of complexity is Belief. Tourniquet can be read in three different ways, all stemming from an interpretation of Ms. Lakin-Smith's new religion.

The first level: everything is exactly what it seems. Druid is a vampire. Jezebel is a fairy. The Darkled are undead, the Castclan are wizards, etc. And this is the level upon which the characters operate. Muggers recoil from a glyph of protection, a love charm brings the attention of the ladies and Skinwalkers burn at the touch of silver. On this level, Tourniquet is pure fantasy. Vampires and fairies fight werewolves while anxiously waiting for their sex scene.

The second approach invokes Belief. The powers and personae work because everyone Believes that they do. This is why the (deceased) Roses is hailed as a messiah. He didn't just found Renegade City in the geopolitical sense, he tapped into a latent stream of magical awareness that allows people to - communally - create the fairyland of their dreams.  Silver burns Skinwalkers because everyone Believes it does. This also explains Druid's concerns about the fading orthodoxy: when people challenge Belief as individuals, it weakens it for the community. 

The idea of thought-makes-reality isn't a new one - especially in VR-infused cyberpunk literature (although I think the best explanation is probably still Terry Pratchett's Small Gods). However, Ms. Lakin-Smith's geographically-specific application is certainly unique. These aren't avatars prancing about cyberspace, these are real people that have created magic solely by shared commitment. 

Unless, as the third interpretation concludes, they haven't. There's a very good chance (or a slim chance) (or no chance, depending how you read it), that this is all complete bullshit. Renegade City is no more or less than Camden Market crossed with an out-of-control LARPing session. Tragic misfits with tiger costumes are yelling "expelliarmus" at one another and the first four to the game got to be the vampires. Magic works because everyone pretends that it does. That's why the four clans are so important - and the Skinwalkers so dangerous. If the rules are broken, the entire system collapses. "Stop beating me, I've got a sigil!"

Ms. Lakin-Smith artfully seeds this interpretation at the beginning of Tourniquet. Druid, surveying his domain, finds something of which he disapproves.

"There was one challenge to the fantastical feel of the quarter; City Hospital. Its four great, reflective wings stretched to every compass point, like a sterile cross nailed to the body of the city. That blot on an otherwise mystical landscape was located to the rear of the watchtower, and as long as Druid kept his gaze fixed forward, he could pretend there was no such thing as sickness or death, only castles in the air."  (18)

Again, this could go a lot of ways. The benign vampire overlord hates to contemplate mortality, that can be taken for granted. But this also hints at the idea that the hospital is an outcropping of reality. Everything else is fun and games, but when someone loses an eye, they'll drop their wands and run screaming back to medical science. Ms. Lakin-Smith revisits the hospital in the book's final pages and this disagreeable notion resurfaces. After several hundred pages of utterly immersive magical landscape, is it all fake?

And, finally, if it is a sham - if these are grown-ups play-acting in a tiny corner of England - does that matter? As long as the players take the game seriously, it is real to them. Whether or not he's a dude in a silly costume, Druid still wrestles with real issues. How can he make this society work? How can he judge who belongs? Should he judge who belongs? Whether it is populated by monsters or madmen, Renegade City is still a community, and that's what matters to him.

Tourniquet is (amazingly) Ms. Lakin-Smith's first book. Stylistically, there are a few moments that show off some rough edges, but not many. (These are notably absent from Cyber Circus, which is about as well-written and as stylish a book as I've read this year). After a slow start, however, the story becomes incredibly compelling - as it needs to be. The reader is pulled in to Renegade City so that they can care about it, and, equally as importantly, they begin to muster their own Belief. Also? Gladiatorial combat with motorcycles FTW.

My respect for Tourniquet is magnified by the simple fact that, taken at its most superficial level, there's nothing in it that should appeal to me. I'm not a dark fantasy reader; vampire princes and pixie maidens give me the creeps. But Ms. Lakin-Smith has used these tropes to create a work of great ambition and surprising depth; raising questions about inclusivity, rebellion and the very nature of belief.