In the world Alexander Darwin has created, war is a thing of the past, and social conflict is resolved via hand-to-hand combat. A boy named Cego finds himself destitute on the mean streets of the underground slums, but when he is sold to a fighting syndicate, his martial prowess and his memories of another life begin to surface. What follows is a tale of his ascent through the different stratas of this dystopian society. He competes for a chance to become a true Grievar, the elite fighters whose combat shapes the world in high-stakes bouts for territory and resources. There are mysteries along the way, centering around Cego’s past and the unseen forces working to manipulate Grievar society. Ultimately, I was more interested in these mysteries than in Cego's training, and wished that they were given more time on the page.
For me, the overall word count devoted to fighting and training scenes went a little too far to keep me totally invested. All of the action sequences are inside the ring, which started to suffer for lack of variety by the end. Still, the Combat Codes is a well-written an interesting story I think most sci-fi readers will enjoy. Despite a few things that didn’t align well with my tastes, particularly the host of long fight scenes, the story is over all well-constructed and keeps you moving along. Fans of mixed martial arts or Brazilian Jiu-jitsu in particular will adore the Combat Codes.
The two main characters in this story are a young orphan named Cego and his grizzled has-been mentor, Murray. I liked both of these characters and found them to be well-depicted, and distinct, but not as unique as I would have liked. The minor characters are also well differentiated and realistic but there are no big standout personalities. Cego lacked a strong goal until the latter half of the book, but once they reached the Lyceum his motivations felt clearer and more compelling.
The opening chapter does a great job of setting the stage..or the ring, as it were. You know from the beginning who the central character is and vaguely what the arc of the story will be. Darwin peppered in some mystery and a twist or two to keep it interesting, and always kept a sense of progress moving forward to the conclusion. I felt this was one of the novel's biggest strengths. Darwin clearly sets up each stage of the plot with a well-defined goal that the story itself is moving toward.
There was a bit of a paradox present in some of the tropes of the Combat Codes. Cego is both an Underdog and the Chosen One. At times these roles were at odds, and the narrative felt inconsistent when Cego would achieve something shockingly skillful, only to be totally dismissed or described as having little to no chance on the very same page. In a similar vein, Cego drags himself out of the muck in a way that was implied to be exceedingly rare, only to have the feat accomplished simultaneously by two of his peers.
The Combat Codes shines most during its many fighting scenes. It is abundantly clear that the author has an intimate knowledge of martial arts. Not only do the action scenes ring true, but so does the training, the preparation, and the fighting culture. With so many fight scenes and so many words devoted to them, there were a few moments where the intricacy of the combat maneuvers lost me. A few moves were hard to picture or relied on fighting jargon I was not familiar with. Yet, for the most part, they felt exciting and as differentiated as was possible after having so many of them.
My major concern in evaluating this book in terms of the SPFBO competition is that it seemed to me to be a science fiction book and not a fantasy novel. In a fantasy competition, this ended up significantly affecting our overall score for the Combat Codes. We discussed the matter internally at Booknest, and in the end, decided to cut our score in half. It's important that people realize that this is not a number which represents my overall enjoyment of the book, rather it is the result of The Combat Codes’ genre not meeting one of the core criteria of the competition. I know that defining and categorizing fiction is a subjective task. Ultimately, this review and score are only a reflection of my opinion, and in my opinion this book did not have any supernatural or fantastical elements to qualify it. Given that, we felt that it was unfair to those still in the competition who had met that criteria, not to reflect it significantly in our final score.
Booknest's official score for the Combat Codes is 4.0.
The Combat Codes is an action-packed, bare-knuckle brawl that follows an orphan’s rags-to-riches story as he is tempered into a human weapon. The novel sticks and moves at a great pace. The prose and characterization are both as solid as Murray’s right hook and it is full of heart-pounding action scenes. Lovers of science fiction and mixed martial arts should definitely wrestle up a copy.