Alexander Darwin has had quite the journey to get to this point. In the last few years, he has gone from competing in beloved Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off (SPFBO), a cut-throat fantasy competition put on by novelist Mark Lawrence, to dropping his debut with Orbit books. Alexander is also a jiu-jitsu instructor who knows the five-finger exploding heart palm technique, probably. He was kind enough to have a lovely conversation with me about his upcoming novel The Combat Codes, writing, martial arts, and having his foot in two publishing worlds.
[GdM] I read in an interview that you grew up loving Dragonlance and played AD&D. Do you still play? Do you find that your early experience translated into your writing?
I don’t play anymore sadly! I played a ton between the ages of ten and twenty, and then stopped because I didn’t have anyone to play with. Since then, D&D seems to have gotten so popular and I’m really itching to get back into it. I have three daughters who I fully plan on indoctrinating when they are the right age!
I feel like D&D and role playing in general are such great vehicles for creativity. It sent me on the path at an early age, writing Dragonlance and Drizzt fan fiction.
[GdM] I saw someone refer to you as the most dangerous man in fantasy; what do you think about that? And do you know the five-point palm exploding heart technique from Kill Bill?
[AD] HAHAHA! I have a feeling John Gwynne and Miles Cameron might have something to say about that, especially if armor and weaponry are fair game. If we’re talking pajama wrestling (gi jiu-jitsu), I might have a shot, though there are several other practitioners you might not know of including Fonda Lee and Evan Winter.
And yes, I do know the five-point palm exploding heart technique, in particular because I’ve watched the final scene in Kill Bill 2 probably a hundred times. It’s one of my scenes in film. Just so friggin’ awesome –she hits Bill and then asks if she’s a bad person and he responds “naw… you’re a terrific person.” Then he gets up, buttons his jacket, and walks away as the music swells before dropping dead. So good.
[GdM] You wrote an excellent article on Jiu-Jitsu called, “Jiu Jitsu is Play.” Can you explain your mindset as a practitioner of Jiu-Jitsu? Is it always play for you?
[AD] I truly believe Brazilian jiu jitsu is one of the most unique activities a human can participate in because it taps into our mammalian brain’s need to play. If you watch mammals – rats, cats, dogs, bears, primates – they play fight, and it’s almost always grappling to prevent serious injury and so that they can prepare themselves for a competitive world. But studies have also shown this sort of play fighting can decrease stress – which it certainly does in my case.
I think when you are playing (at anything) your brain naturally becomes more sponge-like and can better soak up information. My students who learn how to play well often exceed those who are “trying too hard,” because they can test new skills and apply them without a self-imposed pressure of success.
Competition is another game though. The sort of training done for that isn’t as playful, which is one reason I never enjoyed competing much (even though I forced myself to do so). When you are competing you stop learning and just focus on your “A-Game,” which is really not much fun. I think this is why many competitors burn out. I’m in it for the long haul.
[GdM] You have a new book coming out, The Combat Codes. Can you talk about your journey to get to this point?
[AD] Wow, it’s been quite a crazy journey.
The book was self-published, and it did pretty well, in particular because in 2020 it became a finalist in SPFBO. This contest is a fantastic launch pad for self-pub authors; it’s run by Mark Lawrence with a wonderful assortment of reviewers / judges.
Through the next year I wrote and published the next two installments in the trilogy, and right after I released Blacklight Born (the third book) the entire series was acquired by Orbit Books. I can’t tell you how happy this made me, given they are by far my favorite SFF publisher, and I’m a massive fan of so many of their authors, like Evan Winter and Fonda Lee.
It was a unique opportunity for me because not only was I able to capitalize on Orbit’s editorial team to bring the Combat Codes to the next level, but I also took years of feedback from readers and reviewers to apply to the updated version. We did a ton of extra worldbuilding and character development this time around – almost an additional 30K words – and I’ve better aligned the first book on a trajectory for a very satisfying series arc.
[GdM] What is The Combat Codes about?
[AD] The book takes place in a world where single, unarmed combat between champions called Grievar Knights has replaced large scale wars. It follows two primary POVs:
Murray is an aging Knight who used to be at the top of the world and is now scrounging for scraps as a talent scout. He’s grappling not only with a failing body, but also the notion that the Codes of honor he’d lived by have eroded. Cego is a boy looking for his place in the world, but he’s stuck down in the slave Circles, fighting for drunks and degenerates. He certainly knows how to fight like a demon, but he’s haunted by a puzzling past.
When these two join up, they are both given direction in a “Lone Wolf and Cub” sort of way (which is one of my favorite tropes). Murray wants to free Cego from the slave Circles and bring him upworld to join the most prestigious combat academy in the nation.
[GdM] Would you elaborate on how The Combat Codes successfully melds aspects of both science fiction and fantasy?
[AD] I’m heavily influenced by jRPGS, in particular the early Final Fantasy games, which blend magic and technology seamlessly (Magitek). I don’t have traditional magic in the Combat Codes, but there are magic-like elements that integrate with the tech of the world.
For example, there are many different types of elemental Circles that the Grievar Knights fight within; each element influences the combatants in different ways. For example, fighting within a rubellium Circle invokes rage within a fighter or auralite makes a fighter susceptible to a crowd’s cheers and jeers. It’s essentially a magic system.
[GdM] What is Cego like as a character?
[AD] Cego is kind-hearted, but he has a darkness within him that he’s constantly grappling with. This darkness is directly connected to his past, which is slowly revealed throughout the narrative. He’s wise beyond his years in some ways (such as his combat prowess) and yet he’s very childlike in relation to other simple facets of the world.
As a martial arts practitioner, how do you choreograph fight scenes?
I pretty much play a fight scene out in my head, like I’m watching a movie (or live MMA event). I’ll write out the action, but then need to do some serious editing to make it read well. It’s funny, the action itself is not often what propels a fight scene – it’s the spaces between where we are in a fighter’s head, understanding the stakes and emotional toll – that’s where a scene can really come alive. Otherwise, it would just be a dry play-by-play.
[GdM] You were a self-published author before moving over to traditional publishing. You have had your foot in both worlds. What are the differences between the two publishing paths that people might not be aware of?
[AD] I think authors / readers are much more educated on the differences than when I first started self-pub in 2015 because there are a ton of great resources out there. The most important thing to know for self-pub is that it is running a business; you do the writing stuff, but then also hiring, marketing, PR and more. That’s all on you. You need to invest a decent amount of capital to compete, as if you were opening up a restaurant or moving service. If you don’t do this, you have zero chance of success.
Trad pub is quite an enigma in many ways, and I’ve just started to scratch the surface learning about it. One thing I’ve discovered is once a publisher buys your book, it’s a fantastic accomplishment, but you’re still running up a steep hill to be “successful.”
You really need passion on either path to last.
[GdM] When you and I chatted, you mentioned there were an additional 30k words in the upcoming The Combat Codes. Are there any scenes that you had to cut in service to the story that you were reluctant to cut?
[AD] No! We didn’t cut scenes in the first book. We added many new scenes, which made me so very happy.
[GdM] You play with a lot of SFF tropes in The Combat Codes. What was your favorite to twist and play with, and why?
[AD] As I mentioned, I’m a massive fan of the “Lone Wolf and Cub Trope” – that’s been very popular lately between The Last of Us, Mandalorian and the Witcher. The central dynamic between my main two characters plays on this, though it also melds a similar “Master and Apprentice” trope more often found in martial arts stories or anime.
I also clearly love the academy trope, given a large portion of the story takes place in a combat school. But instead of Dark Academia we’re calling it Fight! Academia.
[GdM] The Combat Codes is written in a way that shows you appreciate Martial Arts films. What is your favorite and why?
[AD] We already talked about Kill Bill, which I’m clearly a fan of. I love old school kung fu movies, my favorite being ‘Fist of Legend’ with Jet Li. Why? Because it’s about Chen Zhen. The best. And of course, the Matrix was life changing for me.
The new cover for The Combat Codes is very striking. How did the new cover come about? What was the design process like?
Of course, I had much less control over the design compared to self-pub. But the Orbit art team included me in the process and shared each iteration as it arrived, as well as asked for feedback on many of the elements. They wanted to go with something striking and symbolic (as opposed to character art) to catch the eye of SFF readers browsing a bookstore.
[GdM] You were a finalist for Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off. What was that experience like for you as a self-published author? It is a cutthroat competition.
[AD] I had so much fun to be honest. I didn’t go into the competition with any expectations, so when Combat Codes did well it was a pleasant surprise. Most of all, I got to meet so many incredible authors (and reviewers). Prior to the competition I had zero connections and zero sense of SFF community. By the time it wrapped, I had a close-knit clan of friends to commiserate with.
[GdM] Have you decided if you will get Cego’s Whelp flux yet?
[AD] AH! I really want to. The problem is, getting a tattoo requires taking time off from practicing combat sports / grappling. I think it’s like at least a week or two? And training is so important for my mental and physical health… I know I’m moving the goal posts… but how about I get one if Combat Codes goes into second printing?