SPFBO 6 Finalist: Combat Codes by Alexander Darwin

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This reads like a love letter to martial arts. There is a strong focus on fighting – competitions and training taking up the majority of the page time. It’s clear that the author has first hand knowledge because the action scenes came across as authentic, fluid, and exciting.

In this world, society is structured like a caste system, where there are different classes of people who are born and bred to do certain tasks for the nation. The story revolves around two Grievars – who are a caste of people bred to fight so that “the rest don’t have to”. There are no more large scale wars in this culture. If there are disputed resources, or other areas of conflict between two nations those nations send forward their best fighters for a single combat match to determine which nation gets the resources. These are high stake matches that are broadcast throughout both nations on “screens” that basically just sound like TVs. Each fighter’s biometrics are displayed on the monitor and it shows heart rate, blood pressure, the skeletal system and other things so that everyone knows when one of the fighters breaks a bone or is otherwise injured. 

Murray is a washed out fighter who used to be something special, his days are now spent in the Underground looking for kids who do well in fights to recruit them. Grievars aren’t just trained in a special way to make them great fighters – they are bred purposefully and given neurostimulants and other things to make them into giants – some of the children of their class are over 6 feet and 300 pounds. Murray feels deeply that they should not be using the stimulants and should stick to the Grievar code – but his ideology is fading and is being overtaken by those who want to use every edge available to keep their nation wealthy and the economy strong.  

The other POV, Cego, is Murray’s apprentice. He finds him in the Underground in the slave rings where young kids are snatched off the streets and forced to fight. They are branded with a “flux tattoo” that shows their price should someone want to buy them. With each fight they win or lose their flux tattoo changes to show their changing value. Cego is a little different from the rest of the kids who are rough around the edges and only trying to survive. He shows honor and dignity to his opponents, and fights with a grace and efficiency that hints that he has been trained, but his background remains a mystery for a lot of the book. 

I found them to be a pretty typical master- apprentice pairing, I enjoyed that it was a healthy relationship rather than an abusive one. This world is a fairly dark place with kids fighting each other, sometimes to the death. Being a fighter who may die in any given fight is actually the good option, too. Most kids who aren’t in the fighting pits starve and die on the streets, I found that a healthy relationship helps balance out the grimness of the world they live in. 

The Grievar codes sound a lot like the oaths spoken in Stormlight Archives – where the same principals of honor, duty, loyalty, helping those who can’t help themselves are said over and over again. Cego starts in a slave pit with a group of kids who can barely tolerate one another and gets them all to like each other and come under his leadership. Murray is a gruff older guy who has honorable bones and sticks to his principles.

However, I didn’t fully connect with the characters. I just felt like I’d seen these sorts of characters before and it took the edge off my enjoyment a little bit because it became predictable. Cego is a little larger than life and imho, he’s a touch too overpowered when compared to his peers. He’s able to fight with his eyes closed, beat those much larger than him, and gives off an air of calm and poise well beyond his thirteen years. 

I think this would appeal to people who would like to read a kung fu movie in a scifi setting written in a similar style to Brandon Sanderson. 

Here’s an issue I had that’s outside the book…. This read as a science fiction book. I like those, I’ve got nothing against them at all. However, in the rules of this competition it specifically says scifi’s won’t get very far… but it also says this is subjective. I personally do not see how this is a fantasy book, and for that reason, I’ll take a small amount of points off because I don’t think this is fair to other authors who have been cut because they were qualified as science fiction. It can be subjective, so all I can do is interpret it the way it reads to me. 


  • Plot: 11/15
  • Characters: 9/15
  • World Building: 12.5/15
  • Writing: 12/15
  • Pacing: 13/15
  • Originality: 9/15
  • Personal Enjoyment: 6.5/10
  • -5 pts sci fi submission  

Final Score: 70/100 or 7/10 for SPFBO 


Combat Codes is the story of Cego, who is in training to become a Grievar knight. In this universe, the Grievar are more or less a warrior caste that fight for the ruling class. Cego was raised on an island with his brothers by a man known as the Farmer, who raised them and trained them in the Combat Codes. We start this story with Cego just entering a slave ring with several other kids. They range from about 9-16 or so. They hold fights to determine how much each kid is worth, with that worth being shown on a special brand on them that fluctuates depending on how many fights they win. Cego works his way up through the ranks until he is noticed by a retired Grievar knight named Murray.

We also see this from the point of view of Murray, who is tasked with scouting out fighters for the government, more or less. He sees Cego in action, and immediately determines that he is worth going to Grievar school and so he comes out of retirement, more or less, to have one last fight for him.

This was an interesting book in many ways. It reads like Karate Kid had a love child with Red Rising and The Matrix. That said, this book was 0% fantasy to me. This is, of course, subjective, as Esme pointed out. I was told that the combat system was a kind of magic system, but my interpretation of it was that it is 100% a combination of genetic engineering, mental programming, advanced technology, and a literal lifetime of martial arts training.

Don’t get me wrong, it was a good read, it just wasn’t fantasy to me. Readers who like martial arts are probably going to really, really dig it, because it seems to explore a bit of the nitty gritty of martial arts moves at times. But just keep in mind that the bulk of this book has pre-teens and teenagers beating the shit out of each other on the regular (with pretty brutal deaths here and there) for… more or less the glory of going to fighting school. So, while I think this book has an audience that is going to love the hell out of it, it might not be for everyone.

I didn’t latch onto Cego quite as much as I had hoped to. He’s very noble, like he was brought up to be. I liked Murray, and his exploration of the world at large a bit more. He meets a character at one point who I absolutely could not stop imagining as Krang from TMNT. Perhaps that’s just me. 😀 There were a lot of different characters with different personalities and so on, and many of them grew as the book went on. That was nice.

I listened to the audiobook, which was good. I didn’t super love the sound of the narrator’s voice, which just happens sometimes, but he did still do a good job at it. There were a lot of sound effects and things added that gave the audio a nice bit of oomph, which was cool. It balanced everything out for me so that I managed to listen to this one in just 3 sittings.

All told, I liked it, but I didn’t love it. I think that there are definitely reasons for people to love it, but none of those reasons resonated to me personally. Under normal circumstances, I’d give it 6.5/10 stars but again, since this book was not at all fantasy to me, I’m going to deduct 1 star for being, as far as I’m concerned, not a fantasy book in a fantasy book contest. So, 5.5/10 stars total. 


The Combat Codes is a sci-fi novel built firmly upon a foundation of martial arts. It reads like an amalgam of The Matrix and Pierce Brown’s Red Rising, and I really enjoyed it.

The book opens with a washed-up fighter, Murray, plodding through his days as a scout as he searches for fighting talent. Murray is a Grievar, a caste of society specifically bred and enhanced by drugs, and neurological stimulants, to become fighters in the ring. The combination of genetics and drugs have resulted in a caste born to fight, with children often growing bigger than a large human adult, before they even hit early teens.

As a Grievar, the fight, and honour, are everything. The Grievar fight so that others don’t have to. That one phrase has become their credo, and as the book progresses it becomes clear that bouts in the ring have replaced all other forms of conflict. To the point where even nations, settle their disputes in the ring. The Combat Codes are more than a set of rules, they are an ideology thick with honour, and the moral bedrock upon which the Grievar, and all of society functions.

Murray was once a Grievar Knight, a warrior of the ring. A combination of age, strict adherence to an honour code that is slowly being eroded, and other factors (spoilers) have resulted his fall from grace, and now he ekes out life as a scout, searching the Underground for young talent.

Cego, is the other main character in the book. A young man with a mysterious past, he is exceptionally gifted in martial arts, and Murray soon snatches him up from the slave rings where he was being showcased, in the hopes of attracting a buyer, and takes him under his wing.

Cego is a different breed to most of the Grievar kids. In the slave camp he was compassionate, and a team player, in the face of an “every man for himself” attitude. He helped to hone the abilities of his friends, and fought to defend the weak. If I’m honest, I found his character a little annoying. He’s held up as a paragon of virtue, and his one flaw seems to be a talent for self-flagellation over the death of a friend that was beyond his control.

The story takes us through Cego’s training and successes. From his early days in the slave pit, through to his training with Murray. However, Cego is also beginning to question the world around him, and his own mysterious origins.

Darwin does a really good job here. Cego is an enigma, his background revealed with a series of memories and flashbacks that seem at odds with the world around them. It isn’t until late in the book that this is fully explained, but there are enough tantalising hints dropped to keep you guessing.

Similarly, the moral code that both adhere to, is done very well. It shows in both Cego, and Murray’s, attitudes towards the other castes, their disdain towards the traders, and distaste of anything that shows a drifting away from the true path.

There is a very strong sci-fi vibe running throughout. Terms such as Genetics, Biometrics, Neurostimulants, and more, are used often. There’s even a hint of an alien race (though there’s a possibility I might have misunderstood that one) and that brings me to the issue I have with the book. The Combat Codes is a well-written, professionally produced, novel that I really enjoyed. The story is well thought out, the fight scenes slick, and the world-building is first class. The plot progresses well, and there are a couple of twists that I was impressed by. It is, however, a sci-fi novel. 

Quite how you distinguish sci-fi from fantasy is something that’s open to debate. To my mind it comes down to the levels of technological advancement. Once you move into the future, beyond our own levels of technology, then I feel you begin to drift from fantasy to sci-fi. We could complicate things and throw the term Science Fantasy into the mix, with films like Star Wars, or Dune, but both of these have a very strong “magical” element which is absent from The Combat Codes.

In my opinion there was no fantasy element in this novel. The enhanced abilities of the Grievar were the results of genetics and drugs. The fighting rings which somehow influenced fighter’s behaviour, were firmly established as being mechanical rather than magical. The Combat Codes is as much a fantasy story as The Matrix, and that is only an issue for me due to the fact that this is competition for self-published fantasy books. The rules are extremely clear on this. I can’t, in good conscience, ignore this fact when other eligible books have been cut in order to place this as a finalist, and so my score has been adjusted accordingly.

The Combat Codes is a fast-paced, gripping, sci-fi/martial-arts novel that will keep you reading long after you should have gone to work already. If you liked Red Rising, or The Matrix, you’ll love this book.

Score: 8/10

SPFBO Score: 6/10

Final Score: 6/10 for SPFBO