Never underestimate the power of a good title, y’all. I read this entirely because its series name was Dumpstermancer – and ended up finding a surprise favorite.
In Discarded (Dumpstermancer #1) by Michael J. Allen, talented spell architect Elias Graham has just been released from a hellish magical prison, having served a sentence of 100 years. For a crime he didn’t commit. After he was framed by his closest friends.
And all he’d wanted to do was use his magic to help people.
Now, barred by law from using magic and without a friend in the world, Eli’s only option is to live on the streets. Still bitter from the betrayal, he only wants to go as unnoticed and unbothered as possible – but the magical forces around him have other plans. Thoth Corp, the magic-dealing corporation he helped build, has been secretly turning people into monsters, and the local fey – long thought extinct – need his help before those monsters wipe them out.
But Eli is the most unwilling of heroes…
Simply put, Discarded is unlike any fantasy I’ve ever read, urban or otherwise.
In a genre where most heroes are gung ho for their adventure (even if they take some convincing to start it) and are usually sent off with some kind of aid or magic weapon, Eli stands out as a character who doesn’t want to leave his alley and starts out with literally nothing of use, not even access to his own magical ability. He’s as vulnerable as any other homeless person struggling to survive on the scraps of society, and it is from this that the novel’s strength is derived.
That its protagonist is homeless already makes Discarded stand out from other fantasy novels, but the brunt of its strength is in how brutally and vividly realized Eli’s homelessness is. He isn’t the sort of character who overcomes challenges easily Because He’s The Main Character. He’s the sort of character for whom staying warm, sheltered, and fed is a struggle on top of his magical struggles. When the author describes the conditions he faces, the reader can feel the cold in his alley and fear the results of a nearby woman’s misunderstood scream, and enough of those conditions go wrong for him that the reader has no confidence that he’ll succeed, or succeed in the way he wants to. (Especially considering that the forces that worked to frame him in the first place are still actively working against him.) All this combined makes the book intensely suspenseful – and that’s even before you consider the magical plotline.
Speaking of which, the magic of this setting is fascinating. This is a modern setting parallel to our own where magic has been (mostly) tamed and franchised, where even non-magically-talented people can buy spell boards and components at the magical equivalent of the Apple Store and use them to do any number of petty miscellaneous things. It’s a setting where “mananets” convey magic with the same efficiency of electrical lines – which are still present in this world, as magic and technology coexist, if a bit awkwardly. (Eli holds that magic is just science that hasn’t been figured out yet, but many in the setting view the two as naturally separate.) Eli himself was once at the center of this magical boom, being one of the founders of magical super-franchise Thoth Corp, and this forms another huge part of his character.
Eli could be a hard character to like. He’s an intensely bitter person, and so stubborn about it that he refuses help from even well-meaning people. Some of this comes down to pride – even homeless, he holds himself to a high standard of self-sufficiency – but much of it comes down to the fact that he was so thoroughly betrayed before the story started. After all, his forays into magic began because he wanted to help people with it, until his companions decided to take his company on a more duplicitous, careless route and got rid of him in such an extreme way that it resulted in him spending the equivalent of a century in a magical prison known as The Wasteland, where his punishment was to simply suffer other prisoners in a desert with limited resources. His soul is so scarred by the horrible depth of those circumstances that he sees no point in going out of his way to do any form of good, if there’s a chance it could result in that.
And so while the reader might sometimes be frustrated by his obstinance, the reader also completely understands why it’s there, and this makes him a lot more sympathetic than he would be otherwise.
The fey characters merit a mention, too, for while they are the creatures of fairy tales, they’re not the nice Victorian ones. These fey are straight out of folklore, manipulative with their own codes of etiquette and honor, and while these characters are likable – and essential, in that they force Eli to join his own story – they pose threats to his well-being just as often as they offer boons, and are as much responsible for the story’s tension as they are its victories.
If I were to complain about anything in this book, it’s that there are enough typographical errors to notice, but they read more like the uncaught artifacts of dictation software than lack of skill, and they weren’t distracting enough to detract from the story. (And honestly the only reason I’m mentioning this is because I feel like I should have at least one negative thing to say in this review, lest it read like the unbalanced gushing of an unabashed fangirl. Plus, given the rest of the review, it’s not like the author’s skill is in question.)
In short, read this book. Urban fantasy readers will find a vividly realized world with all the magical quirks and suspense that they know and love, while non-fantasy readers will find an unexpectedly earnest look at the practical struggles of homeless life. Discarded is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year, and absolutely recommended.
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