The Combat Codes, by Alexander Darwin, is the latest in a series of new-age magical school stories with fresh settings and ideas on what constitutes a school. In this case, the reader will find themselves presented with a mashup of MMA fighting and your typical zero-to-hero schoolboy coming-of-age story. Darwin’s injection of passion for gritty hand-to-hand combat does a lot to put a fresh coat of paint on everyone’s favorite car for an adrenaline-fueled race through a dirty futuristic world.
Welcome to a world so ravaged by a terrible war that all the leaders sat down to end mass strife in the only way that they could imagine—localized strife. So the leaders weren’t that creative. Faced with the prospect of an eternal war that would ruin the planet, the ruling forces established a precedent for working on conflict through the combat codes: one on one dueling in large, dangerous rings. The most prestigious of these rings are elevated to the highest society where disputes are settled through minimal loss and bloodshed. But the popularity of these rings has caused underground arenas to become incredibly popular everywhere in the world. In one such underground arena, an orphaned boy called Cego is making a name for himself. An old retired fighter named Murray thinks he has spotted the makings of greatness in Cego and takes him on as an apprentice. First, Cego must prove himself in the vicious arenas of the underworld, where survival isn’t guaranteed.
I think the first thing I should establish in this review is that The Combat Codes is overwhelmingly not my thing, which is not its fault, and I still had a fun time regardless. I am not a fan of MMA, and that is clearly the intended audience for this story. It is gritty, dirty, violent, and sad. It focuses on the brutality of the ring and the martial prowess of a single combatant trapped in a cage punching the crap out of another. Darwin is excellent at describing choreographed combat, which was a must with a story like this. It did a lot to make the fairly basic acts of punching people seem exciting and creative. If you relish the descriptives of knuckles crunching into a jaw or an impeccably timed kick to the stomach then you will have a fabulous time in this all-out brawl. But, since this wasn’t really my thing I found myself distracted by other elements of the story.
I didn’t resonate much with the world Darwin has built as it feels like half gilded city and half ghetto, both of which upset me. The book is built on extremes with characters either living in fabulous wealth or abject squalor. It painted a world I would hate to be a part of that didn’t speak to me creatively and didn’t encourage me to want to know more. I found myself hyper-focused on the characters instead, which wasn’t to the book’s detriment.
Cego is a fun star with an enjoyable supporting cast, but none of it felt too revolutionary. Cego feels like a blank canvas full of kicks and elbows for the reader to immerse themselves in, but I appreciated his grit and determination which felt very fitting for the story. The supporting cast fell mostly into your typical tropes for stories: the bully who comes around, the sad weak one that the main character fosters, and the mentor who used to be great and wants to pass on their greatness. But tropes are popular for a reason and all of these characters do well to pull you into the story and keep you invested.
The plot kept me invested and veered in unexpected directions. There is very much a thematic element of crawling up from the bottom of a mountain throughout the book and each new challenge that presented itself was one I looked forward to tackling. Although I struggled a bit with the details (a me problem) I still enjoyed seeing them applied to Cego’s trip to the top and all the places it took him.
The Combat Codes wasn’t for me, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be for you. Despite my problems with the setting, the book still tells a very compelling and exciting story that anyone who likes a good magical school piece will enjoy. Plus, if you are a fan of MMA, you are going to have a great time with this bout.
Rating: The Combat Codes – 6.5/10
An ARC of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts on this book are my own.