The Combat Codes by Alexander Darwin

Medium: Audiobook/Kindle

Overview (No Spoilers)

Sarah’s Thoughts: 

The Combat Codes does not read like fantasy to me. All of the fantasy elements are eventually revealed to be a result of technological breakthroughs and just because the inner workings of the tech is not explicitly described it does not make it fantasy. Due to this genre classification providing significant fodder for debate, even among my own team, my score does not factor in this aforementioned critique, but instead is a genuine score based on its comparison to the other finalists’ reads.  

Darwin has envisioned a dark, yet intriguing world where land disputes and other national negotiations are determined through single combat bouts between each nation’s champions, thereby avoiding all-out war. The mantra, “We fight so that the rest shall not have to”, is repeated so often that you’ll hear it in your sleep. These fighters, known as Grievar, have traditionally been guided by a strict collection of rules known as the Combat Codes that dictate not only how to fight but also how to live their everyday lives. As Mercuri, a once dominant nation, starts to lose ground to neighboring nations, emphasis on the Combat Codes wanes as the pressure to start winning again mounts, ultimately corroding the foundation that generations have built. 

The Combat Codes focuses both on Cego, a youth of extraordinary talent as he navigates various training grounds to try to eventually get to the elite Grievar training school and Murray, once a fighter of legendary stature who is struggling to find his lightpath as he ages and sees how far the new fighters and Mercuri’s leaders have fallen from the Codes. 

The story itself is fast paced and filled with mystery and suspenseful fight sequences. That said, so much emphasis is spent on these fight sequences that it felt like the rest of the story and development suffered as a result. There are several instances where the worldbuilding felt incomplete on a detailed scale to help seamlessly pull everything together. For example, we finally get to the highly touted school with only four hours left in the audiobook. Somehow, in those four hours, a whole year elapses at the expense of key details that never quite get explained and by focusing on only a few characters, usually just to fill in the outlines of depth. Also, considering how much time was spent fighting, with key terms interspersed throughout the bouts, I finished The Combat Codes feeling like I hadn’t really learned anything about fighting. Perhaps if I had a deeper background in the various styles of fighting these sequences would have had more significance. 

The technology side and the mystery surrounding Cego’s past were fascinating and definitely my favorite aspects of this book. However, could Murray read my aforementioned sentence, I’m sure he would have some gruff dismissal of my appraisal. I thoroughly enjoyed Cego’s flashbacks to his childhood and the lessons they provided. They were a much happier, sunnier time than the hell he is presently struggling through. The convergence of technological innovations with the old school fighting was a unique combination that, especially with the revelations Murray finds by the end of The Combat Codes, tend to oppose each other at an ever-increasing rate. 

Overall, Darwin has concocted an intriguing, violent world in The Combat Codes that balances revealing a significant portion of its mysteries with raising an equal number of increasingly more curious questions. Plus, the scientist in me enjoyed the heavy emphasis on technology.

Sarah’s Rating: 6/10

Kelley’s Thoughts:

We fight so that the rest shall not have to.”

We follow the stories of two main characters- Murray, a former Grievar Knight now turned scout and Cego, a young Grievar boy whom Murray finds in the slave circles. The Combat Codes is heavy on, you guessed it, combat. Land, resources, and power are determined by the MMA-style fights between Grievar champions of warring nations. Going into the read I did not think I would enjoy reading about fights, but was pleasantly surprised. The novel is well paced and interesting as more about Murray’s past and Cego’s mysterious origins are slowly revealed. I enjoyed watching the master-student relationship unfold between Murray and Cego. I was getting some serious Karate Kid vibes (without the bratty teenage angst). Under Murray’s guidance, Cego is tested at the Citadel and accepted into Grievar school. Along the way, Cego forms great friendships and also makes some enemies, all while some nefarious things are happening in the background that Murray is trying to uncover.

The world building in The Combat Codes is very well done- I felt like I was right there in this rough, technologically advanced world. The main characters are well developed and likeable. There were some inconsistencies and conveniences that led to a few plot holes that could have been better developed or taken care of in my opinion. I would say that overall, The Combat Codes is a well-written and interesting dystopian science fiction novel, but I don’t know that I would call it fantasy.

Kelley’s Rating: 7/10

Stephanie’s Thoughts: 

Let me begin by saying I am not the target audience of this book.  I will immediately change the channel at the sight of an MMA octagon, flinch during movies that feature any type of bodily harm, and in general, find myself having more and more pacifistic tendencies as I get older.  That said, I have to hand it to Darwin for writing a story dominated by fight scenes and combat dogma that is both interesting and accessible to those who are not familiar with that world.  I appreciated Darwin’s clear and precise writing style; even someone like me lacking in martial arts background knowledge could easily imagine every match, following blow by blow as the scene developed.

The Combat Codes follows two characters, Cego and Murray.  Cego is a young slave fighter with a mysterious past who finds himself thrust onto a hostile team of other would-be Grievar, the warriors who fight for their country to win land, development contracts, and other diplomatic prizes.  They live by the code “We fight, so that the rest shall not have to.”  Cego must navigate the tensions on his team, cruelties inflicted by his trainer, and the challenge of fighting more seasoned boys in order to earn a coveted spot in the Lyceum, the school where Grievar begin to train for their career.  Meanwhile, Murray is a jaded scout for the Lyceum, scouring the underground for rare diamonds in the rough.

I had such a hard time scoring this novel.  Much of the first half of the book felt like watching an underdog sports movie… a down on his luck kid joins a band of misfits rife with discord and suspicion.  Slowly the boy turns the group into a true team, all pulling in the same direction and stunning the sports world with their victory.  Don’t get me wrong, that’s a great formula for a successful story (as proven by the plethora of blockbuster movies following those tropes), but it wasn’t new or compelling to me.  I wasn’t really keen on the plot until the last third of the book when it becomes more of a Mortal Combat Harry Potter, replete with competing teams of students, classroom scenes, and at least a hint of the magical element that seems to be largely missing from the first part of the novel.  From that point, I felt like the story took a more unique direction, exploring the exploitation of the Grievar class by the Daimyos.  Darwin sets up book two in the series to focus more on the social strife and character conflicts that made the last part of the novel so compelling to me, and I wouldn’t hesitate to pick it up.

Stephanie’s Rating: 7.5/10

Jennie’s Thoughts:

Let me preface this review by saying that I am not qualified to speak to how realistic the bouts are in Alexander Darwin’s The Combat Codes, a story which relies heavily on mixed martial arts to build tension and deliver action (inspired in part, I’m sure, by Darwin’s own history with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu). Published in January 2016, this book is Volume 1 in The Combat Codes Saga. In this world, Grievar are used to settle disputes, both interpersonal and international, through hand-to-hand combat in the Circle. The Combat Codes themselves were handed down by the Ancients ‘as doctrine for all Grievar to uphold—both in the heat of combat and during everyday life.’ Since their inception, however, advancements in technology and a changing political landscape have led to clashes between those desiring to adopt new practices with the goal of winning at all costs and those who want to stick to the old ways, steadfastly abiding by the codes. This tale follows Murray Pearson, a retired Grievar Knight and current Grievar Scout, and Cego, a lowly Grievar-in-training, as they walk the lightpaths before them. Seeing something special in Cego, Murray sets out to help the enigmatic boy escape the slave Circles and reach the Lyceum for formal training.

Given that my knowledge of full-contact combat sports is limited to a few basic kicks and punches, Darwin has written the fight sequences in a way that was easy for me to follow. That said, I imagine that my enjoyment of these scenes would have been greater had I known more about the techniques named throughout the tale, like their degrees of difficulty or if they’re even real. Due to the reliance on technology to enhance said fights (and one’s recovery from them), I would argue that The Combat Codes falls more into the science fiction genre, with neurostimulants for strength, biometrics that detect physiological changes, and alloys that directly influence those within the Circle. I do believe that there are a few elements of fantasy throughout, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they could be explained by tech that I missed or we haven’t learned about yet. Overall, the world that Darwin built easily drew me in with its creativity (and light-based science buzzwords!). Additionally, I enjoyed how aspects of the story reminded me of other well-known series (like Harry Potter, The Matrix, and The Karate Kid). I also envisioned some of the characters as those from other worlds (such as Mars Attacks! and Star Wars), but that may not have been what was intended…

It was nice to have contrasting perspectives between someone who’s just finding the Path and one who’s grappling with what comes after the spotlight fades. I’ll admit, though, that I preferred Cego’s sections over Murray’s due to the use of flashbacks to piece together his past – I’m a sucker for a slow-burn mystery. The first half of the book does a good job of laying out social structures within this world, exploring the fighter mentality, and establishing key relationships, but I was hooked after the Trials for admission to the Lyceum. I thoroughly enjoyed the direction the story takes in the second half but felt, given how much takes place, that some things are less fleshed out than I would have liked. Having used the audiobook to accompany my reading of the book, I appreciated the range of voices and sound effects that went into David Sweeney-Bear’s narration of The Combat Codes. In Volume 1, the drama revolves more around the bubble that Cego lives in, with the potential to expand it to world-wide implications in the future. On the whole, Darwin’s story packs a punch!

Jennie’s Rating: 8/10

Overall Average Rating from the Critiquing Chemist and her Bookish Boffins: 7/10

Additional Insight (Spoilers Abound):

  • How do bit-minders shape someone’s lightpath? Is this actually The Matrix? Is it through the control of the spectrals which then affect Grievar in the Circle? How does the element choice affect which wavelengths are emitted by the spectrals? Why do Grievar react to those wavelengths? What are the spectrals made of? Where did they come from?
  • Every time the kids in Circle Crew Nine mention their silver cans filled with “fighting greens,” I couldn’t help but envision Popeye.
  • Is there an age limit (max/min) for the Trials? Can you compete more than once if you’re not chosen by the judges on your first attempt? What are the odds that four individuals from the same group in the Underground not only participate in the Trials but also succeed in gaining admittance to the Lyceum? I know it was part of the bargain that Dozer and Knees came with Shiar, but the Lyceum is supposed to be a very selective place, even for purelights. And after “training” four fighters who all gained entrance to the Lyceum in the same cycle, is Tasker Ozark now some local hero in the Deep?
  • During the Trials, Cego is led by his spectral to the arena for his second match with the Guardian. What did the folks watching the lightboards make of this spectacle? As for his spectral showing up outside of the Sim, is Farmer/Coach behind these “darkin’ strange workings” as a way to look out for Cego in the real world? I imagine he’d probably send some kind of message to Murray as well though if that were the case… What purpose will Cego’s new, unconventional flux tattoo serve?
  • While discussing how easily Cego navigated the Sim during the Trials, Aon mentions to Murray that that was not the only anomaly during these Trials, though.’ What else was unexpected? And what put Kōri Shimo ahead of Cego in the results of the Trials? Is Kōri ‘the subject’ Callen refers to when talking to Memnon about ‘the other program of ours’? Is it Joba? Maybe Shiar (too obvious)?
  • I would have liked Kōri Shimo to have more of a presence in the story. Assuming he is a product of the Cradle where ‘every Grievar that goes through it [is] a champion’, is it even necessary for him to be at the Lyceum? Why not just roll out these pre-programmed Knights instead of forcing them through a school where they won’t even really participate?
  • While meeting with Zero to look into Cego’s past, the Daimyo tells Murray that ‘there are not many Grievar, or even other Daimyos, that command the respect of our kind. Yet Aon Farstead is one of them.’ Why? What has Commander Farstead done for them?
  • I’m not looking to talk about ‘the birds and the bees’, but where do the babies for the Cradle come from? Are they purelights? Will the Daimyos go after Cego now since he was supposed to be terminated from their experiment?
  • Anyone else guess that “Farmer” was more than he first appeared? I mean, that name… But anyway, Murray is surprised to learn that Coach went into the Cradle as ‘a way he could teach those kids the Combat Codes.’ Shouldn’t Murray have recognized Coach on the lightboards while folks participated in the Trials? Is his appearance different in the Cradle (unlike Silas’s)? Will Murray seek to find Coach and the Cradle in the Deep?
  • After the Trials, it seemed really out of place for there to be jeering and name-calling from the parents and spectators as the top twenty-four students were named to the Lyceum’s new class of Level Ones. 
  • With four hours left in the audiobook, we finally reach the school setting. The three students who interact the most are Sol, Dozer, and Cego, matching well with Harry Potter counterparts. Dozer is kind of slow and doesn’t put much of an emphasis on school (also, how did he learn to read in the Underground?) but is Cego’s sidekick, so there is our Ron. Sol is an easy Hermione comparison: she is brilliant, smart, and constantly helping out Cego and Dozer when they slack on school assignments. Cego, our Harry, is a moral compass (at least for most of the book) and is good at everything he does.
  • The Lyceum’s retention rate is poor considering, ‘on average, only thirty percent of our first-year students make it through to Level Six graduation.’ What is the cause of this? Do they get kicked out? Do many die? Can you quit? How much of this is because a group gets held back each year? Speaking of which, why is there no mention of the Level One team repeating their first year? And which team came in last place at the end of this school year?
  • How does one group end up with the name “Team Jackal” and another as “Team Whelp”? I had flashbacks to the Greasers and the Socs in 8th grade English class.
  • In Team Whelp’s first match against a Level Two opponent, why did they pick the only member of their team not to attend the strategy session as one of the three fighting?
  • During the third of three challenges for Team Whelp in a single day, we see that ‘Dozer faced off with Knees.’ If there is a trade clause in place on a challenge, why would anyone that it pertains to be allowed to participate in the fight? I feel like this would allow one to throw the match if they really wanted to. Also, it seemed really convenient that Mateus wanted to leave the team as Cego and the others needed someone to trade for Knees.
  • Cego going from a good guy to a crazy, uncontrollable fighter in the last two bouts felt abrupt and out of line with his character attributes. What triggers him? Is it the onyx Circle? Why is Cego suddenly no longer able to fight the ‘evil’ of the Circle?
  • So, Knees was damaged all of Year One from the Trials and needed time to heal and magically become himself again? That doesn’t explain his aggressive attitude toward his friends.
  • In a twist I was waiting for, Silas is revealed as ‘the Grievar that had killed Artemis Halberd.’ How did his brother, in roughly the same amount of time, become this foreign nation’s champion? What defect does Cego have that his brother doesn’t? Is his little brother, Sam, alive somewhere too? Does Silas remember Cego?

Vocabulary Builder:

Clinch: to hold an opponent (as in boxing) at close quarters with one or both arms

Diaphanous: characterized by extreme delicacy of form; ethereal

Spartan: marked by simplicity, frugality, or avoidance of luxury and comfort
Torpor: a state of mental and motor inactivity with partial or total insensibility


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