REVIEW: Grievar’s Blood by Alexander Darwin

Last Updated on February 11, 2024

Grievar’s Blood is the second installment in Alexander Darwin’s Combat Codes trilogy, following up on his debut novel, The Combat Codes. The Combat Codes trilogy takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where conventional warfare has been replaced by hand-to-hand combat between trained fighters known as Grievar Knights who spar on behalf of their nations. Given their critical importance to national interests, Grievar Knights receive the highest levels of training at special martial arts schools. However, some nefarious entities try to cheat the system by enhancing fighters through technology or other illicit means.

Grievar's BloodThe main protagonist of the Combat Codes trilogy is Cego, a diamond-in-the-rough boy who demonstrated great promise as a fighter in underground arenas. In The Combat Codes, Cego is discovered by Murray Pearson, a retired Grievar Knight with a troubled past, who assumes personal mentorship of Cego, training him to become the next champion fighter for their nation of Ezo.

Much of the action of the series takes place in the Lyceum, a training school where students both native and foreign are taught to pursue excellence in martial arts, following the greater purpose of the Combat Codes, viz., avoiding war and helping their country. However, the Combat Codes might also serve as a means to control and suppress people.

The first book of the trilogy, The Combat Codes, was a case of mismatched expectations for me personally. Based on the book’s description and dragon image on the cover, I was expecting the novel to be similar to Mortal Kombat in terms of its storyline and action. However, I found The Combat Codes to be much closer in spirit to The Karate Kid, with Murray Pearson playing the role of sensei and Cego serving as his protégé. Much of the book was dedicated to the psychological and philosophical aspects of martial arts and the importance of never sacrificing one’s honor. The Combat Codes also embraced many of the standard training school tropes from young adult fantasy literature, such as making friends and dealing with bullies. As a grimdark reader, The Combat Codes left me wanting something darker and more intense.

I’m happy to report that Alexander Darwin gives a deeper and more mature spin on the story in Grievar’s Blood, which picks up a year or so after the events of The Combat Codes. In this second book of the series, Darwin divides point-of-view duties among three protagonists: Cego, Murray, and Cego’s good friend, Solara Halberd, or Sol for short. Sol’s storyline is a welcome addition to the book, both for improving female representation in the series and for all the raw excitement that she brings to the novel.

Alexander Darwin has also matured as a writer in his sophomore effort. The characters feel more fully formed in Grievar’s Blood, and the book definitely has a more nuanced tone. There are plenty of unexpected plot twists in Grievar’s Blood, and the last page had a revelation that left me hungry to find out what happens next.

The epic fight scenes are a thrill to read, with well-earned comparisons to Fonda Lee’s Jade City. Like Fonda Lee, Alexander Darwin is an accomplished martial arts master who leverages that personal experience to write very well-crafted, cinematic fight sequences. Another point of similarity is the inclusion of rocs in Grievar’s Blood, which are also the main focus of Fonda Lee’s recent novella, Untethered Sky.

Overall, Alexandar Darwin has given grimdark readers a lot more to enjoy in Grievar’s Blood, with higher stakes, darker action, and a more epic scope. The Combat Codes trilogy is certainly a must-read for martial arts enthusiasts.

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John Mauro

John Mauro

John Mauro lives in a world of glass amongst the hills of central Pennsylvania. When not indulging in his passion for literature or enjoying time with family, John is training the next generation of materials scientists at Penn State University, where he teaches glass science and materials kinetics. John also loves cooking international cuisine and kayaking the beautiful Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.