Book Review: Tourniquet (Kim Lakin-Smith)

Tourniquet front cover

‘Tourniquet’, Kim Lakin-Smith’s debut novel, is an ambitious book. It is set in Renegade City, the rebranded-gothic British city once known as Nottingham. At some point in the city’s recent past the rock band Origin claimed it as a safe haven for “the sub-cultures of the world”; more honestly, though, Renegade City is for the self-identified gothic and industrial outsiders of the world.

Skip forward some years and Renegade City has become occupied by four distinct tribes. There are also the Drifters, a catch-all collective term for the disparate individuals who have chosen to make Renegade their home, and the Skinwalkers, a violent and tightly-knit biker clan united by their harsh camaraderie but denied recognition as a formal tribe. Meanwhile, the four members of Origin have become the Drathcor – essentially mysterious, vampiric figures leading aloof and secretive lives – and several of them rule the city alongside the tribe-elected members of the Management. An additional group, the Grallators, are responsible for maintaining some semblance of law and order in the city.

At the outset of the novel two plot strands are teased to the fore. Roses, the messianic frontman of Origin, is dead, killed in what may have been an act of arson or murder. Origin’s onetime drummer, Druid, is dispatched by Sophia – once the band’s bassist, now an objection of his desire and resentment – to investigate the truth of what transpired. For the first time in many years, Druid is forced out of himself and down into the streets of the city.

Simultaneously, the street-smart Jezebel is on the hunt for her brother. He left her to try and find a place among a Skinwalker clan, and she has made it her quest to bring him back. It soon becomes apparent that the same clan of Skinwalkers is implicated in Roses’ death, and so Jezebel and Druid are hurled tumultuously together and apart as their quests weave in and out of sequence. A third figure, the savvy geek IQ, volunteers himself to play the role of sidekick, intrigued by Druid’s deliberately concealed origins and bound to Jez’s quest by a promise.

As is apparent from the preceding paragraphs Renegade City is a busy and unusual place, blending the contemporary with an equal measure of weird, and takes some time to become accustomed to. Perhaps in recognition of this fact the first hundred pages or so of the novel are sedately paced, excepting an action-packed opening chapter and a few scuffles and chases here and there. During this time the city is peeled apart for the reader. An orange probably functions better than the traditional onion for this metaphor; there’s a lot beneath the surface, but it seems segmented rather than layered.

Unfortunately this approach is not ideal: the early quasi-philosophical musings about the nature of the city mean little to the reader at the outset, and convey little that is memorable beyond awareness that there is a rot at the city’s core. Re-reads might prove rewarding to devoted fans, but on the first read the first half of the book stands out primarily through its almost turgid pace, during which the plot barely advances beyond the starting blocks.

Fortunately, Lakin-Smith’s prose is stylistically distinct and a pleasure to read. There are some truly lovely turns of phrase, and there’s a sensual lilt to her voice which is perfectly appropriate to both the decadence of Renegade City and the aesthetic of the subcultures that spawned it. That said, the prose isn’t uniformly brilliant. The approach to description of place can sometimes be overwhelming – sudden bombardments of images cannoning at the reader in an effort to rapidly build up a sense of location – but by the same token this frenetic approach can be well-suited to the scenes themselves. More obtrusively, metaphors and similes sometimes trip over themselves in attempting to be too flowery, and sometimes they seem ill-suited to what they’re actually describing. For the most part, though, the prose is vivid and poetic and does an excellent job in bringing the city and its denizens to life.

The novel’s style, then, helps carry the story until it picks up about halfway through. In this it’s ably assisted by the characterisation, which demonstrates a skilful eye for detail: Druid’s near-terminal introspection; IQ’s geeky, awkward conversational gambits and wordplay; Jezebel’s deep-rooted personal issues; and, memorably, Druid and Jez’s acidic exchanges – half masking the desire that they rarely recognise they share.

The conclusion of the story is a mixed success. Clearly a sequel is intended, as what initially appeared to be the central hook – Roses’ murder and who was behind it – remains unresolved. Similarly, a mysterious and powerful figure known as the Angel, whose identity I genuinely looked forward to discovering, remained shrouded in secrecy. Jezebel completes her quest, but she finds herself still on uncertain ground as the issues that led to her brother’s flight remain. There is also a little payoff for Druid, in that his character arc has followed its path almost completely and restored some sense of life and purpose to him. However, the only true resolution comes for the book’s exploration of Renegade City itself. Through its violent convulsions the city is explored, first backwards from the broken dream to the dream’s inception, and then forwards again to highlight the external manifestations of the cancers that plagued the city’s philosophy from the start.

It’s this that is most fascinating about Tourniquet. At first, despite the violence and the misogyny of the city, it seems like it might be a pure celebration of a ‘goth colony’, of the dangers that go hand-in-hand with the darkness. But it proves to be more than this, as its key players dance around the fallacies and shortfalls of the dream that drove the city’s foundation; the exclusion in the name of inclusion, the petty tribalism, the shallow and xenophobic attitudes of some outsiders towards others. At the same time as it celebrates the strengths and triumphs of the city – and perhaps, metaphorically, the real-world subculture that birthed and populated it – it castigates its failings and philosophical weaknesses by painting a bitter picture of the end results of such flaws.

Unfortunately, whilst the philosophies of Renegade City are complex and explored in a genuinely interesting manner, the underpinning worldbuilding weakens it significantly. One minor point is that the vaunted independence of the city is an obvious lie – for example, the city itself can’t possibly contain the industrial infrastructure it clearly requires, nor produce sufficient food for its population. On top of this, hardly anyone seems to do any sort of job. The entire city, or at least what we see of it, seems to be populated by hangers-on and wastrels. This severely hampers the sense of the city as a living, breathing metropolis.

Two other issues that I struggled with were how long the city has existed for, and how the “magick” that allows Renegade to be as weird and wonderful as it is first came about, and continues to exist. On the former point, the age of Renegade City is never specified. The city’s infrastructure and its subcultures must have taken some time to evolve, and more for the rot to set in. I won’t dwell on this, but hints both overt and subtle can put estimates of the city’s age at anywhere between 5 and 50 years old. Perhaps it’s a good thing in terms of what the story is trying to explore that it doesn’t distract the reader with such details – perhaps the vague timelessness of the city is a deliberate conceit – but I found it frustrating that there doesn’t appear to be any underlying consistency.

Similarly it’s never explained how the “magick” of the city actually works. It is implied that it’s tied to the city’s umbrella faith, Belief, and only works within Renegade City itself. Presumably, then, this power stems solely from the populace’s fervent desire to believe in something that remains unspecified (and going by the people that populate the city, is also very diverse). Generously, you might describe this as handwaving. I found it troubling to try to look at the foundations of the city’s unusual premise and discover that there were no real foundations – the magick simply is because it suits the story, the aesthetic, and the philosophy.

Overall ‘Tourniquet’ does have many flaws, but it’s an impressively ambitious book and its central conceit – exploring a city-state founded around a musical subculture – is quite unique. I like it a lot for this. It will certainly be interesting to see more of Renegade City, and if you’re prepared to accept, disregard or read around what I’ve criticised, I think you may find Tourniquet a rewarding and thought-provoking read.

Immanion Press
ISBN 978-1-904853-35-0

Kim Lakin-Smith’s homepage | Immanion Press

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