I was provided a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review by the author. The experience I had reading Combat Codes was reminiscent of my teenage years watching a Bruce Lee movie with my father. Similar to the films, the energy, grit, techniques, and the spectacle of reading about hand to hand combat makes Combat Codes a triumphant debut for Alexander Darwin. Combat Codes is a SPFBO Award Finalist for Best Fantasy Book (2020) and I can say with great pride that it deserves every single nominee and award coming its way!
After reading the first few chapters I immediately got the same feeling and excitement I had when I read Will Wight’s first Cradle book Unsouled. The build-up, tension, and excitement you feel right before a fight shines through in Combat Codes and Mr. Darwin clearly knows his way around a fighting ring. The world is built upon the premise that conflicts are not resolved by armies going to war causing great destruction and chaos. Instead, single combat determines the fate of the nations and the chosen few who enter the fights are known as Grievars. This causes great political tension among several nations with secret alliances being forged among the elites and it seems that no one can be trusted.
Combat Codes is told through primarily two main POV characters. First we have Cego, a mysterious boy found on the streets with no memory and forced to the slave circles of the underground. Cego trains with other outcast with the goal of winning enough fights to be bought by the highest bidder, to be trained as a Grievar. Unbeknownst to Cego, he starts remembering the training of his former teacher through his dreams and he uses known techniques in his fights. The other main character is Murray, an older Grievar with the propensity to consume to much alcohol. His main mission is to recruit fighters from the underground and bring them to the Lyceum combat school. All seems lost until Murray discovers Cego and the story takes off from there. At the Lyceum, Cego must learn new skills, climb the school ranks, and discover the mysterious of his past as they are pushed to the forefront in more ways than one.
What separated Combat Codes from most of stories I’ve read is the precision that Mr. Darwin shows us the fighting ring contains. Its one thing to throw a punch hoping it would connect, but what if you miss? How will your opponent take advantage of your mistake and do you have the reflexes and training to counter? It is this constant back and forth motion and shifting of the tides which made me unable to put this book down. Mr. Darwin knows how to set the tone and atmosphere in his novel from beginning to end and you will not want to miss one second of it.
Fans of Will Wight’s Cradle series, Bruce Lee movies, or an martial art junkie will literally get a kick out of the Combat Codes. Mr. Darwin has shown me once again that you don’t need an epic world with dozens of characters and a complex magic system to tell a good story. You just need great characters, good ideas, lots of tension, and a plot that drives the story and Mr. Darwin is the master of his craft, or should I say sensei? With book #2 of the Combat Codes, Grievar’s Blood already out, I plan on diving into this sequel very soon and I hope that some of you will step into the ring alongside me. Congratulations Mr. Darwin on your award nomination and I see plenty more coming your way.