The Last Storm by Tim Lebbon
(Titan Books, 2022)
Reviewed by John Dodds
In the realm of post-apocalyptic novels, of those I have read, at any rate, I would argue that The Last Storm stands head and shoulders above many of them with its original ideas, crystalline prose, clever fantastical ideas that are both plausible and questionable. I say “questionable” in a positive way, because of the superficially technical elements (the rainmaking machine) and the mystical (the otherworldly powers needed make said machines work) combine in a way that makes for a highly original premise, though also of course requiring a willing suspension of disbelief.
If you are a science fiction purist focussing on the potential of real science and extrapolating from that, this might not be the book for you, but even if you are you might just surprise yourself and find this novel a captivating delight, just as I did.
It's the story of rainmaker, Jesse and the two women he is estranged from, his daughter, Ash, and his wife, Karina.
Jesse’s hermetic existence reaches a catalytic moment when his rainmaking work kills a local drug dealer. Not with rain, you understand—think Biblical plague, complete with scorpions, spiders, snakes and other poisonous creatures falling from the sky. To say that Jesse hadn’t quite cracked the business of rainmaking perfectly would be a serious understatement.
On the subject of drugs, both Jesse and his daughter appear to have an addiction to rainmaking, with their homemade equipment reminiscent of old-style radio making, and electrical cables from the makeshift machines, the rainmakers enter a type of transcendental state, except the transcendence takes them closer to the conventional idea of Hell rather than Heaven. And yet, they stick with it, as drugs do with addicts.
But before the story begins, Jesse had already attempted to kill his daughter, to prevent her from bringing about the localised apocalypses the rainmaking brings about. And when we join him on his road trip to find her, after he learns she is still alive and rainmaking again, he has managed to beat his own addiction to rainmaking.
Rainmaking is, on the surface, carried out with the best of intentions, to bring water back to the drought-ridden swathes of North America. But, to quote Rabbie Burns (I am going to a Burns supper the week I am writing his, which is perhaps why the verse springs to mind), “The best laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft a-gley.”
Jesse is re-joined by Karina and, together they take a perilous road trip to find Ash.
Ash herself is often in danger, being effectively abducted by a group collectively known as the Hotbloods with their hyperactive, disordered and dangerous behaviours. And descending on our trio, is Jimi, originally a Soaker, one of the people who capitalises on the drought by locating water, sometimes drained from reservoirs, and selling it on at a high price. And Jimi wants revenge for his father, whom Jesse killed at the beginning of the novel.
In chapters alternating between each main character, we are treated to a rollercoaster of a road trip with, I felt, more or less predictable consequences, in the sense that the main characters end up in the same place at the same time and a Western-style shootout, with some Lovecraftian alien creatures adding to the mix, ensues. So far, so Hollywood.
Lebbon is a clever writer, don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed the story and the writing style (third person narratives with the exception of Ash, writing in somewhat more poetic vein in the first person).
The last Lebbon I read and reviewed was Alien: Out of the Shadows, which I enjoyed immensely and my introduction to him was his genuinely scary novella, White. And while The Last Storm is a really excellent novel, I had some reservations about some of the tropes at the end (tentacled monsters, Biblical plague and so on), but these are relatively minor carps in an otherwise fabulous work.