Review: The Combat Codes by Alexander Darwin

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Buy The Combat Codes HERE
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OFFICIAL AUTHOR BIO: Alexander Darwin is an author living near Boston with his wife and three daughters. Outside of writing, he teaches and trains martial arts (Brazilian Jiu Jitsu). He’s inspired by old-school Hong Kong action flicks, jRPGs, underdog stories and bibimbap bowls.

Outside of writing fiction, Alexander has written for publications such as Rolling Stone Magazine, Jiu Jitsu Style and SF Signal. His latest piece, The Lost Diary of Anthony Bourdain, was a featured piece in Rolling Stone’s January 2022 Issue.

FORMAT/INFO: The Combat Codes was released on June 13th, 2023 by Orbit Books. It is 419 pages long and told in the third person from Murray and Cego’s POVs. It is available in ebook, audiobook, and paperback formats.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Centuries ago, an accord was struck whereby war was outlawed, instead replaced by fights of single combat between champions called Grievar Knights. These knights fight in hand-to-hand combat with no weapons and no tech, and decide the fates of millions with their victories and defeat. Murray Pearson used to be one of those Grievar Knights, until a terrible loss drove him to retire. Now he’s a washed up Scout, looking for new trainees in the gutters of underworld fighting pits. When Pearson spots a young slave fighter named Cego, he sees someone who could become one of the nation’s greatest champions, but it might mean putting Pearson’s own life on the line to win his freedom.

The Combat Codes is a well-done, if familiar story, but one with plenty of teasing tidbits to catapult the reader into the sequel. How much you enjoy The Combat Codes is going to largely depend on how much you enjoy specific tropes. If you like scrappy underdog stories, and brutal, competitive combat academy settings, then settle in for a wonderful time. It’s the kind of adventure where most of the time, you can tell where beats are headed, which doesn’t preclude it from being an enjoyable ride if you want to settle in. It has an engrossing finale that compelled me to read the final 100 pages in one sitting.

That being said, The Combat Codes is predictable most of the time; the ending had some reveals that I found truly fascinating and unexpected. I cannot wait to see where things go in the sequel, especially as the story appears to open up with a larger look at the world.

Underpinning the story of The Combat Codes is the debate around the actual Combat Codes themselves. This foundational text is supposed to drive how Grievar Knights conduct themselves both in and out of the arena, and is responsible for many of the traditions involving the avoidance of technology in training and in the actual bouts. But with the high stakes nature of these fights, more nations are dabbling in everything from stim enhancements to virtual training sessions. If your enemies are cutting corners to get ahead, and these fights determine if your nation feasts or starves, is it more important to live ethically and run a higher risk of loss, or to also make the same cuts to keep up with the competition?

CONCLUSION: The Combat Codes may not have amazed me right out of the gate, but boy does it have me on board for the sequel. It’s going to be a favorite for many who enjoy these kinds of school settings, with an ending that absolutely sticks the landing.

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