REVIEW: The Combat Codes by Alexander Darwin

Last Updated on February 12, 2024

The Combat Codes is the debut martial arts science fiction by Alexander Darwin in which war has been replaced by hand-to-hand combat. Originally self-published in 2015, The Combat Codes earned a finalist slot in Mark Lawrence’s sixth Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO6). Darwin’s entire Combat Code trilogy has since been acquired by Orbit Books, which has released an updated version of The Combat Codes with an additional thirty thousand words to expand the character development and worldbuilding.

Combat Codes The premise for The Combat Codes is that, in a world decimated by war, countries have vowed never again to use weapons of mass destruction.

Instead, they have agreed to solve international conflicts using unarmed combat, where skilled fighters known as Grievar Knights represent the various national interests. Science fiction elements are incorporated throughout the book, mostly as technology meant to enhance fighters’ performance.

The Combat Codes is built around the relationship between Murray Pearson, a retired Knight who suffered a devastating loss that hurt his homeland, and Cego, a diamond-in-the-rough boy who shows much promise fighting in underground arenas. Murray takes Cego under his wing, believing him to be the next great champion.

Alexander Darwin is a master at writing fight scenes. It may seem natural to compare The Combat Codes to Fonda Lee’s martial arts-infused Jade City. Both Alexander Darwin and Fonda Lee are accomplished martial arts masters who write well-choreographed, cinematic fight scenes. However, martial arts are just one component of Jade City, whereas they serve as nearly the sole focus of The Combat Codes.

The plot of The Combat Codes drags for much of the book, until a major plot twist is revealed at around the 80% mark. Until that point, the novel feels much like reading a sci-fi version of The Karate Kid, with Murray playing Mr. Miyagi as sensei and Cego serving as his pupil, Daniel. A large amount of page time is devoted to the mental and philosophical aspects of martial arts, going beyond physical strength. There is also much discussion on the proper role of technology in training and competition.

The Combat Codes adopts many of the standard training school tropes found in young adult literature: dealing with bullies, testing the limits of friendship, overcoming obstacles, etc. The rather small-scale fights between trainees become quite repetitive. I feel bad in making this criticism, knowing that the author just added thirty thousand words to the book, but the story really could be tightened up to improve pacing and eliminate repetitive scenes. I also found myself hoping for a much grittier read with higher stakes conflicts. Another problem with the story is its rather meager female representation.

The Combat Codes is manna from heaven for martial arts enthusiasts, who will enjoy the breathtakingly realistic fight scenes and philosophical discussions on the importance of martial arts. However, grimdark readers will be left wanting both higher-stakes conflicts and more grit from this debut novel.

3/5

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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.