Do you like violence? Alexander Darwin’s The Combat Codes is about a world where society has traded war for hand-to-hand combat bouts. Where the Grievar are trained, given performance-enhancing stimulants, and all sorts of experiments by the Daimyo in order to win their newfound way of waging war. Murray, who used to be a knight himself fighting in the circle but has long since retired, hates how the world has changed, how the fights have become all about winning and no longer about the honor of the fight. The Daimyo sees the Grievar as nothing but beasts, while the Grievar sees the Daimyo as weaklings, including Murray, who now serves as a scout searching for anyone worth recruiting and training to be a knight. In the underground, literally the underground, he finds the mysterious but well-trained young man Cego. Cego has no memory of how he got from the island he lived on to the underground, where he was bought and traded as an enslaved person to fight in the lowest of low fights with people merely trying to prove their worth and escape from the underground to the surface. Where Murray once sank into his cynical depression and drink, he now finds new hope in Cego, the way he fights, moves, and follows the Combat Codes with honor even though he doesn’t fully know them. Thus begins the journey of Cego to become a knight and Murray to discover the truth of where Cego came from.
The world of The Combat Codes is not kind; it’s violent, grim, and highly entertaining. As a fan of professional wrestling and fighting games like Street Fighter, this idea of trading weapons of mass destruction for the fights between combatants to decide important government decisions alongside politics, diplomacy, and business immediately called to me. It’s not straightforward, though, where once the Daimyo of different nations were in an arms race with weapons, now they are in an arms race of fighters and, in doing so, will trade empathy, honor, and compassion for their fellow beings for trained killers that’ll achieve victory by any means necessary. The Grievar are not perfect either. They’re quick to anger and are beginning to leave their culture behind for the same reason as the Daimyo to win for glory rather than for the reason the codes say: They fight so the rest shall not have to. Murray and Cego, of vastly different upbringings, become embroiled in the machinations of both the Daimyo and Grievar politicians in order for their nation to win their bouts and create unstoppable fighting machines. Cego is put in a position of choosing victory with honor or victory with the thrill of fight and standing victorious over your opponent. Murray likewise must put aside his stubbornness and strict adherence to tradition to find out the truth of Cego’s past and what his higher-ups have planned for the young man and the future of Grievar.
It’s safe to say Darwin must have had extensive mixed martial arts training because the fights as written with close detail to show the specific expertise of each of the fighters but straightforward enough that someone with no or very little knowledge of fighting techniques would understand what was happening. The author also makes sure not to write every style the same, with the wide variety of cast of characters having their strengths, styles, and techniques that fit their personality. It’s the equivalent of any fantasy author with a well-done magic system with a fighting system that serves the world of The Combat Codes but is based in some reality. The world is not without its fantastical, though, as the Grievar fights in different circles made of a metal of various elements, and within these circles are wisps of light called spectrals. Different spectrals come from different metals, coming in a variety of colors. When the Grievar fight within these circles underneath these different spectrals, it affects the combatants and the fights, such as increasing their need to be creative, influencing their perception of times, enhancing their fighting prowess depending on how the crowd cheers, and others. Why the metals that make up these rings produce different spectrals is a mystery that I’m excited to learn about within the series. I love a book with secrets, and lying underneath the plot of Cego’s training and Murray discovering Cego’s past is all kind of little mysteries of this world I can’t wait to find.
Cego and Murray are not the only outstanding characters, filled with antagonists like the blood-thirsty noble-blooded Shiar and the sniveling toad of a politician Commander Callum and likewise great supporting cast like the brutal, loyal, and kind of thick in the head Dosar to Solara Halberd, the daughter of the most famous Grievar Knight Artemis Halberd wishing to prove she is worthy of his name. The class divide between the Grievar and what seems to be a racial divide between the Daimyo and the Grievar has me highly invested in how characters like Cego and Murray could invoke change. While Murray appears to be just as prejudiced about the Daimyo as they are about him, Cego seems to be more open-minded and empathetic to the Daimyo, making friends with a medical cleric named Clamella who, through their conversation, discovers. At the same time, they may be different it does not mean they are unequal. Although this is only a tiny part of the book, I’m excited to see this explored more as Cego grows and discovers new aspects of his training to become a Grievar Knight, including the seedy underbelly parts he may not want to see or learn about.
As of when this review is being published, the wait to find out what happens next is not that long. The Combat Codes is out now, with the second book in the series, Grievar’s Blood, only mere months away. The novelty of getting the follow-up so soon after discovering a new book you’ve become engrossed with has not worn off after years of getting into the series that has many years between releases. The Combat Codes has quickly shot up my list of Must Read Books of 2023 Recommendations, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds for Murray Pearson and Cego, especially after all the revelations that come in the climax. The world of The Combat Codes is violent, grim, and heavy, with societal problems that won’t be solved overnight. Still, I look forward to taking the journey with Cego to see if he stays on the path of the light to make the world a better place or will eventually take a dark path full of glory, victory, and bloodshed.
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Joshua was provided an advance copy of the book by Orbit Books.
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