Combat Codes by Alexander Darwin

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Lol, a little bit of a deja vu as I’ve already reviewed this book before but I got a new and updated version that’s being released by Orbit. I read this back when it was a finalist for SPFBO.

This reads like a love letter to martial arts and will definitely appeal to people who love action and fight scenes since that’s literally what this book revolves around. There are also a lot of classic tropes that people love and keep coming back to like training montages, master/apprentice relationships, a group of outcasts bonding and having difficulties etc., etc.

So, we’ve got a world here that doesn’t go to war in the ways that we’re used to seeing. Gone are the days of huge bloody battles where a bunch of people die for a small piece of land, or resources, or revenge. Now when two countries or powers have an issue with each other, or something they can’t negotiate through political means… they send out the Grievars, fighters that represent the nations and fight in a ring to decide these things. It’s a national televised event, it’s a part of main stream culture, and our POVs are some of the fighters. It is absolutely clear that Darwin has personal experience with martial arts and writes these scenes pretty well. I personally get bored with one-on-one combat scenes but I did read these instead of skimming or skipping.

So our two characters, Murray and Cego are master/apprentice and I liked both of them. I don’t always get on with younger characters, so Cego could have gone wrong for me, but mostly I enjoyed his point of view. Younger characters when they’re mopey or super angsty, or just up and down and all over the place with their emotions, although totally believable and relevant to their age group, it gets under my skin. I definitely tend to prefer the more mellow, thoughtful, and mature younger characters. It’s hard to do without making them read “too old” and read like an adult — so, well done there. Cego gets “recruited” into the fighting pits and despite the brutality of it, he’s probably better off there than on the streets where the mortality rate for orphans is super high. Grievars in this world are huge, like over six foot tall and 300 pounds and these are like, kids. They’re given neuro-stimulants and other things to turn them into monster fighters. To me, this reads much more like a science fiction than a fantasy, so just be aware of that as you go into it. This has a lot of technology like huge screens displaying the health of the fighter as the fights are ongoing, tattoos that move around and display different info, dehydrated foods, neurological implants and medicines, metal technology etc., etc., this isn’t really something with “magic” per se.

The pacing I thought was nice and the prose got out of the way of the story. It reads very fast and I got through it in both cases, in just a sitting or two. I will say that the ending was a little fast, but overall the pacing was well done and there wasn’t a drag anywhere that I felt I was going to DNF or “come back later”.

The world building from what was there I really enjoyed. This is an interesting take on future conflict resolution and what it would look like if we really went for a concept like this. I would have liked to know *more*, though, on many fronts. It’s possible we will get more of that in later installments or books based in this world. I just felt like I had an island effect and I only knew about as much as the characters did which was a little limiting and affected my ability to picture the “whole” of the world, if that makes sense. I did like how at the beginning of the chapters sometimes we got little tidbits of info rather than trying to squeeze those in as info dumps.

Overall, I enjoyed my time with this and I encourage people who like fight scenes, martial arts, sci fi, mentor/trainee relationships to give this one a shot!