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The front cover for Combat Codes by Alexander Darwin. The front cover is black. There is an image of a dragon standing on its back legs. Its wings come up above it's head then down around its feet. The dragon is a statue and only highlighted in certain areas.

Combat Codes

COMBAT CODES by Alexander Darwin

COMBAT CODES by Alexander Darwin

Orbit Books, pb, £8.31

Reviewed by Christine Downie

The front cover for Combat Codes by Alexander Darwin. The front cover is black. There is an image of a dragon standing on its back legs. Its wings come up above it's head then down around its feet. The dragon looks like a statue rather than real and only highlighted in certain areas.

Combat Codes is the debut novel of Alexander Darwin and is the first of a trilogy, with book 2 coming out at the end of 2023.

The set-up for the story tells of a time when wars almost destroyed the planet, and it was decided that all future disputes would be decided by single unarmed combatants in a gladiatorial manner. They will fight so others don’t have to, is the motto. The Grievar Knights are trained from childhood in martial arts style fighting; some are born into Grievar Knight families, and others are talent scouted. The story centres on two main protagonists, Murray Pearson a retired Grievar Knight now scout, and Cego, who might be the best candidate he has ever discovered.

The novel opens with Murray in the underworld of the planet, literally below the surface, populated by a seedy and brutal underclass. It’s a great opening, with Murray presented as a world-weary cynic, drinking heavily and disinterested in his surroundings. It has a Chandler-esque feel to the description of the underworld as the underbelly of society. Murray comes alive when he sees Cego fighting in a combat ring and takes him to be trained above ground at the Grievar Knights Lyceum.

However, nothing is as it seems, and Darwin gradually peels away the layers of the story with masterful skill, drawing the reader with each new twist. The martial arts fights are incredibly well-written, raw and brutal in the detail that the author uses. The violence is necessary to push forward the story, and yet it never crosses a line of excessiveness. I did have a couple of moments where I winced, but I never felt the fight scenes were too much. Darwin himself is a teacher of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and you can see in his authoritative writing that he really knows his subject. If you are a fan of martial arts and/or gladiatorial fighting, you will love this aspect of the book.

But this book is more than just combat. It has real heart to it, and the characters are very well-formed and rounded. The reader becomes very invested in the characters, and the unveiling of the various mysteries and secrets is compelling. I would have preferred to see more of Murray Pearson, as there is a large section of the book where Murray disappears into the background before returning to the narrative towards the end. But that’s just me being a bit nit-picky, I think. I just really liked Murray.

All things considered, I enjoyed the book enormously and look forward to reading the second in the series soon.  

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