THE COMBAT CODES by Alexander Darwin (SPFBO 6 FINALIST REVIEW)
Phase 2 of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off is drawing to a close at the end of this month! Keep track of the finalists’ scoreboard here.
If you’re following SPFBO 6, let us know about any entries that have caught your fancy! Join the discussion on social media (there’s a Facebook group here) and weigh in on Twitter using the hashtag #SPFBO.
As a child I read the Catweazle books by Richard Carpenter, where a charlatan alchemist from the middle ages is catapulted through time to the twentieth century. In his eyes, the mundane normalities of our technology acquire the mysticism of magic. I was particularly (as a 7 or 8 year old) amused by Catweazle’s insistence on calling electricity ‘electrickery’.
Certainly it was a fine example of Arthur C Clarke’s third law “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Which suggests at least a potential blurring of the boundaries between science fiction and fantasy, with characters like Catweazle potentially having an option to define which genre they inhabit.
But this is SPFBO not SPSFBO (Self-published speculative fiction blog off) – and the difficulty of simply pronouncing SPFBO is itself a powerful argument against any further acronymic enlargement. However, we do see many fantasy authors developing elaborate consistent rule-bound magic systems, while other sci-fi authors indulge in a degree of legerdemain to excuse faster than light travel, teleporting, and memory transplants.
This can make it difficult to see which best fits the literary theorist Tzvetan Todotrov’s definition of the uncanny (sci-fi) as characterised by “the supernatural explained” and the marvellous (fantasy) as featuring “the supernatural accepted.”
However, fortunately as SPFBO judges and SPFBO entrants, we don’t have to engage in a literary interrogation of a book’s fantasy credentials. In a world where genre boundaries are increasingly porous, if it feels like fantasy to us, then it is fantasy (and as if it doesn’t, as Mark pointed out, it won’t do well).
The Combat Codes
“We fight, so the rest shall not have to.”
In a world where single combat determines the fate of nations, the Grievar fight so that the rest can remain at peace.
Cego is a mysterious Grievar boy forced to fight his way out of the slave Circles into the world’s most prestigious combat school.
At the Lyceum, Cego will learn a variety of martial arts from eclectic teachers, develop deep bonds of friendship and fight against contentious rivals to climb the school’s rankings.
But, Cego will find far more than combat studies at the Lyceum. He will find the mystery of his past unravelled by forces greater than he could ever imagine.
Filip: ALEXA, CUE AN ANIME TOURNAMENT ARC.
No, this is a book, Alexa. Oh–oh, I see.
Continue, fellow judges.
Nils: The cover of Combat Codes immediately reminded me of The Hunger Games, in fact it’s almost identical. (Note: the cover has now changed and I have to say I like it a lot more.) As I began reading the opening chapters I noticed further similarities as we are thrown into a futuristic dystopia, with the main premise of combatants fighting to win prosperity for their nation.
Initially I liked the dark and gritty atmosphere, and found the prose was well done, I didn’t notice many editing issues. However, I struggled to ease myself into the book as we are presented with a lot of technical terminology and made-up slang words, much of which is in the dialogue with little explanation, so I spent a lot of time piecing together what it all meant. For example there were Purelights, which were higher class citizens and Lacklights, who were lower class, yet it took a long time before I fully grasped this. I did expect this kind of invented idiom as most dystopias are presented in this way, but I would have liked more detailed descriptions than I feel Darwin gave us here.
When I read further on in the novel, I found quite a bit of repetition in the prose which began to grate on me. For example the motif “we fight so the rest shall not have to” is very much overused. Yes it’s a significant code which combatants are supposed to live by, but really, I would have preferred not to hear it so often. I found many of the invented swear words kind of irritating too, for example ‘Darkin’. But again, this is a trait of sci-fi and the dystopian genre, so I think this was just a personal irritation of mine.
To be honest I wasn’t excited by this opening, the premise felt very much like other YA dystopian/sci-fi/fantasy books I’ve read before with little fresh to hook me in.
Beth: I didn’t mind the cover so much, it did take me a while to realise that the figures were in a martial arts hold *face palm*. However, I much prefer the new cover! I find it a lot more eye-catching and dynamic.
It did also take me quite a while to get into the flow of this one. Like Nils said above, there’s a lot of terminology to get used to. I prefer this kind of ‘get used to it’ method, rather than history lessons about the various social classes, so I’m not sure why it took me so long in this instance to pick it all up; possibly because there was so much of it.
Going into this book, I was concerned about the issue of its genre. Obviously, as I’ve said in previous reviews for SPFBO, on any normal day this wouldn’t be an issue at all. Books that are brave enough to challenge genre stereotypes and blur the boundaries are always welcome on my pile. But this is specifically a fantasy contest, so I am always looking for the fantasy content in our books. With The Combat Codes, I was initially concerned as the quote on the cover states it’s perfect for fans of sci-fi. I was relieved to find at first, it is quite difficult to tell whether this is fantasy or sci-fi. There seems to be tech, but it’s so far out of the understanding of our protagonists that it may as well be magic.
Nils: I was so hoping it was magic!
Beth: Me too Nils! However by roughly about the 50% mark, the sci-fi elements of this book really kicked it up a notch and it clearly settled itself into a future-tech sci-fi dystopia.
Aside from the bombardment of terms, I rather liked the writing; I thought Darwin’s descriptions of the city were atmospheric, and I particularly loved the way he described the character’s aging body, all his aches and pains.
Filip: I’ve been reading progressively more science fiction over the last few years and so The Combat Codes came in at just the right time. I had a good amount of fun with it, even though it was rather an unexpected read to come out of this competition.
Theo: I did like the cover, I think the motif of a piece of jewellery resembling two entangled wrestlers within a circle caught the book’s theme well. I’d not seen the Hunger Games cover before but having looked I can see the resemblance that Nils spotted. At the same time we see so many “hooded figure with shaded face” patterns in fantasy book covers that I don’t feel Darwin’s cover is overly generic or imitative.
Beth: Good point Theo! Away with ye cowled git.
Filip: My thoughts exactly, Theo! It’s a very…topical cover, shall we say?
Theo: There is a valid question of magic or technology whether this is fantasy or sci-fi? However, I’m all for blurring genre boundaries these days. I found quite a few echoes of Mark Lawrence’s Red Sister series about Ninja Nuns set on the world of Abeth. You have children going to warrior school with all the bullying and prejudices that that entails. Lawrence has his shiphearts and his mirror moon, Darwin has his spectral lights and his strange alloyed combat circles, together with the mysticism of ancient combat codes.
It helps that Darwin gives us a very immersive view of the world. I felt he was showing far more than he was telling, that there were bits of culture and history that I just had to pick up as we went along – the tensions between races and places revealed through character reaction rather than exposition..
Julia: I do read YA happily and I like SciFi as much as fantasy, so I was hooked early on with Combat Codes. It has a very easy to follow style and I do enjoy a good fight scene! I also wondered about the genre, because this felt more like a less advanced Enders Game to me at the start.
For production value – there is a good Audiobook available!
Thoughts on… THE CHARACTERS
Nils: The first character we meet is Murray, a retired grizzly combatant. I didn’t really have any strong feelings towards him as his character felt rather bland, but I didn’t find anything to dislike about him either.
I was immediately intrigued by Cego’s character though, who in his first chapter we are led to believe is a highly competent blind fighter. What a fantastic storyline that could have been! Yet that’s not where his narrative leads, instead we discover *mild spoiler* Cego is faking his apparent blindness. I really didn’t like this one bit, and I remember complaining to Beth about how annoyed I was that the story was not going in the direction I wanted it to.
Beth: Ha, you told me to look out for a part coming up that had made you cross, so then I was on high alert!
Nils: Haha! Yep I was livid!
Another issue I had with the cast of characters was the severe lack of female representation. The overall majority of the characters are male, particularly those in positions of power. I felt quite frustrated and let down by this, I mean why couldn’t Cego have had a sister? Why couldn’t the Tasker Ozark have been female?
As we surpass the halfway point though we are presented with one female combatant – Sol. Yet Darwin presented her as perfect at everything;
‘Sol wasn’t just a brain; she backed up her vast banks of martial information with flawless execution. In individual Level One scoring sections, Sol was leading in every class with nearly perfect test scores.’
This was something Darwin did with most of his main characters, they were too good at everything they did which took away the tension during fight scenes because you knew Sol or even Cego would always win. In my opinion, it made the whole story become boring and shallow because characters without flaws or weaknesses lack depth and realism.
Beth: Argh that is such a brilliant point Nils! There was a real lack of jeopardy throughout. Even when Cego does appear weak, we already know it’s because he’s trying to look weak.
Theo: This is true. A story built so entirely around the theme of combat means that we know the hero must triumph through combat so the combats (for example the one involving Murray) don’t feel so perilous. But I think Darwin makes the tension not so much about whether the protagonists will triumph, but about how they will triumph and at what personal cost.
Filip: It’s all about mastery with Darwin, the joy of the fight itself. You won’t be judged too harshly for thinking, now and again, that Darwin wrote a story around the combat and not the other way around.
Julia: Exactly what Theo said, and as I enjoy a good combat scene just for the scene itself, I didn’t mind predicting the outcome. Also in combat you can still lose but keep on fighting on in the next battle!
Beth: I really liked the characters we get, there was a strong underdog found-family team thing going, very much like in our finalist for SPFBO 5, A Tale of Stars and Shadow. I do love this set up, it always hooks me.
However, there were times we strayed rather close to Rowling’s holy trinity with the roles of Harry, Ron, and Hermione played by Cego, Dozer, and Sol.
Nils: This is so true! Sol was an almost identical Hermione!
Theo: Exactly what I was thinking. I made this note when Sol is explaining to Cego and Dozer how challenges in the Lycium work. “Exposition by the clever girl – a touch of the Hermione stereotype.” There are other Harry Potter parallels like the intake of 24 being divided into four houses who compete for points – though in this case it is all through inter team combat. I did feel though, that Darwin got a sufficiently distinct team of six around Cego, though their distinctiveness did become a bit stereotypical eg The big silent one, and the small foreign chatty one.
Beth: Like Nils, I was very frustrated by the lack of representation. There are three women in the whole book, the brief mention that one or two other students were female. It didn’t feel intentional, it wasn’t as if it was insinuated women couldn’t fight, or women didn’t have a place in this society. It just felt like it never occurred to the author?
Theo: Yes, I did like Sol as a character precisely because she was something of a lone woman in a very male dominated society. Darwin did – as Beth says – make it clear that women Greivar knights were an unsurprising concept to this culture, they are just perhaps in the minority overall (and also in this story). I did think it interesting that there is a bit of male chauvinism bleeding into the attitudes, with Sol getting taunted for not being the son her father really wanted.
Julia: I also didn’t mind the few women in here so much. Yes, women can fight, but I can also see how especially in a society that focuses on martial arts style combat there just would be more boys picked then girls. Sure they can balance pure strength and muscles by being faster or outwitting an opponent, but that takes time. And being chosen young would probably mean that those with inherent advantages would be picked first. If you are a muscled giant you will easily win against a “weaker girl” when both are not yet trained.
Beth: Martial arts don’t always necessarily rely on strength (Aikido, for example, specifically teaches you to channel the strength of your opponent in order to defend yourself); but also women are capable of being strong, and men of being weak, so I struggled to see that as an issue in this kind of society.
Julia: I did however feel all of the characters could have used some more depth to them. More fleshing out. Yes, I do read and enjoy YA, especially after a long day – but this one had the “action and pace over character development and depth” problem a lot of YA has. It’s still a fun and entertaining and really quick read! But if I have to compare it to complex and well balanced books in a competition, it will fall short.
Thoughts on… PLOT/STRUCTURE/PACING
Nils: As I’ve mentioned I found that Combat Codes follows a typical YA dystopian narrative. There is the standard training school story arc – malicious bullying, the main character helps his teammates work together to become stronger/successful, and many of the opponents Cego faced were predictable, such as his duel with his weaker friend, Weep.
We did get some scenes of Cego on an island training with his brothers which I did thoroughly enjoy, I felt we got to know Cego a lot better during these chapters, but the mystery behind the island was easy to figure out – Beth you got it spot on!
Beth: You’re always surprised when I do this!
Nils: *eye roll* 😝
Yet the rest of the plot fell short for me, I found the combats repetitive with very little excitement in them. If you look at Fonda Lee’s The Green Bone saga her martial arts scenes are always filled with excitement because her characters don’t always succeed, despite them being able to use magical elements from the powers they gain from Jade, they still had weaknesses and flaws. So each time her characters fight I’m always left on the edge of my seat.
I also found everything increasingly relied on sci-fi elements which I’ll discuss in the next section and I failed to become invested or immersed into the story.
Beth: The plot certainly wasn’t one of the stronger elements for me… Nils sums it up perfectly. Although, like I said before, I like the found-family trope, there wasn’t anything new going on here with the whole set-up.
The key thing about this book is the martial arts – I guess it’s odd we haven’t actually mentioned this in more detail yet, considering how pivotal it is to the whole plot and world building. I really loved the notion of a world where wars aren’t fought, but instead you have champions who fight each other. I loved the exploration of the kind of society this construct creates, but I hated the description of the fighting itself sorry! It’s clear to see Darwin has a passion for martial arts, and obviously knows what he’s talking about, but it didn’t personally make for enjoyable reading. I briefly did aikido as a teenager, but otherwise I am not a martial artist, so I did feel the fighting scenes were lost on me but would be greatly appreciated by a reader familiar with that world.
However, I did like the wider plot going on behind all this, which was tied more closely with the world building I guess? And which I won’t go into because of massive spoilers.
Theo: I agree there is a certain familiarity to the foundling finding a found family while fighting for a future education. However, there are some intriguing mysteries and wider political issues that gave the plot a bit of enjoyable texture, more so than other YA series I have tried. The martial arts theme permeates everything in the book and it is interesting that – in his acknowledgements – Darwin cites Brazilian Jiu Jitsu not just for giving the physical knowledge to help choreograph a plethora of fight scenes, but also for giving him the mental discipline to commit to the slog of finishing a book. Hmm – Jiu Jitsu for authors, maybe we all need it. While I can’t pretend to have followed all the detailed moves and thrusts and holds it is all written with a reassuring conviction that sweeps the reader along.
Julia: I also guessed some twists very early on. But then I read a ton of YA and fantasy. I love to game, and enjoy LitRPG, so some of it was just obvious to me.
I love me a good school setting, and training is a favourite trope of mine, be it fighting, magic, military, basic education… So I enjoyed the plot and seeing the group grew into a team and get better together.
Once again it was just a bit too easy and quick and missed a bit of depth, which makes for an even quicker read, but also leaves a bit of a hollow feeling.
Filip: There’s no great surprise to the structure of The Combat Codes but the execution is most enjoyable. The camaraderie Cego discovers among his fellow trainees, while striking familiar notes you’ve likely come across in works such as Sanderson’s Skyward, for example, struck a chord with me. Both our main characters start off in a dark place, and to watch them claw their way out, predictable or not, makes for a pace that moves nicely along.
Thoughts on… WORLDBUILDING
Nils: At first I was noticing fantasy vibes within this world, which to be honest I was pleased about because in a fantasy competition, I’m looking for the fantasy elements to be strong. Within the narrative there was the notion of wisps of light, which seemed almost ethereal. I found this extremely intriguing as I felt this was a magical element at play, yet as the book went on the sci-fi elements increased and the fantasy became non existent, which I was sorely disappointed by.
Beth: That’s exactly how I felt too Nils!
Nils: The world entails much advanced technology – for example there are neurostimulants to keep fighters young and healthy, and there are Vats which can heal fighters if they are severely injured. In all honesty, beyond that I didn’t really understand the other concepts. I’m not the biggest tech-heavy sci-fi reader, so this was perhaps personal taste, but I couldn’t help but want my fantasy elements to be more predominant.
I was also left with a lot of questions – how exactly did a nation prosper when a combatant won? What exactly made the world change so drastically? Who were the ancients? I feel there was so much focus on the fighting that aspects of the world-building weren’t fully explored, which I was let down by because Darwin created some very fascinating concepts to this world which I would have loved to have discovered more of.
Beth: Nils has summed up my own frustrations perfectly. As I said previously, I wasn’t really gripped by the fighting itself, and this was an integral part of the book. I found the world building so intriguing, but as the fighting took centre stage, we’re left with these tantalising aspects of the world that I wanted to know more about.
The world building was one of my favourite aspects about the whole story;
there’s an extreme disparity between the intelligent race who is in charge, and the race of our protagonists who fight the battles of the other race. There’s a strong sense that the Grievar, the fighters, are kept uneducated, kept literally in the dark, so that they do not question the imbalance in their society. It seems what started as an alliance has devolved into a form of slavery and I found the potential psychology behind this fascinating.
Nils: Ooh that’s an interesting point, it definitely did feel like the Grievars were slaves. I really wish we had explored that in more depth.
Beth: I hope that perhaps, if the series is to be continued, questions will be asked and a rebellion will be formed? Again, not the most original plot, but the groundwork seems to be there!
Unfortunately, these threads are very much in the background and are not the core story…
Theo: I did enjoy the worldbuilding. I found an interesting variation in setting between the strangely lit underworld cavern and the surface world, though without ever feeling the detail was being forced on me through exposition. While darking and light lacking also made for nice consistent in-world terms of abuse.
I liked the contrast between the cerebral and patronising technology driven daimyos and the hulking Grievar with their mystic combat codes – and the prejudices both races display towards each other. Cultural shifts and tensions like a Grievar expression of oss for approval, being supplanted by a foreign concept of clapping.
The reverence for the circle and the codes of combat also put me in mind of Sumo Wrestling as much as any other combat tradition.
The notion of a world where every civil or international dispute is resolved through individual trial by combat between champions is also intriguing, though as Darwin makes clear, this does not bring real justice within reach of the poor.
Julia: All that Theo said right above me! For me the focus on fighting was no problem at all. As I said before, I do enjoy these type of stories! However the fighting made up the plot for me. Not so much the setting or world building. And I think it has a lot of potential. A lot of sparks and hints that promise more to come. However it just felt a bit shallow at times, as the hints stayed hints, and I wished for some more actual depth to it.
Filip: Tradition, prejudice, an unjust society – these are the elements within Darwin’s setting I most enjoyed. There’s plenty here which strikes me as clever.
Elements Theo and Beth have mentioned: the reverence displayed by some characters towards the mysticism hinted at but never quite revealed, but also the almost caste-like tension. The combat itself, so deeply intertwined with the very fate of civilization, shows exactly the kind of stakes Darwin’s upcoming instalments will deal with – this novel offers a fine foundation for a series that might scratch that cultivation fantasy itch later on.
Quotations that resonated with you
Nils: I really liked the poignancy in this description of Murray;
‘Murray felt his body decaying like the old foundations of this crumbling Underground city.’
I also loved the contrasting imagery of nature vs technology here;
“They say there was a time long past when you could still hear the Deep wind, the soft swish of cave bats flying overhead—not just the whirring of mechs eating away at the earth. A time before the great array above when only the gentle glow of lichen illuminated the cavern floors. A time when our Circles were simple formations of rock, wood, or moss spread on the ground, not the overcrowded dens, amphitheatres, and arenas they’ve since become.”
Theo: Personal data permeates this world from the public biometrics that flash up on screens about all the fighting Grievars, to the strange chip/fluid “flux” tattoos that fighters have and which are updated with details about bit-price. I liked the resonance with our own world where so much personal data can be harvested through social media and used to make a tradeable/marketing commodity out of the data points that define us. This line in particular made that point for me
The voice stopped. “Blather? I merely speak the truth, Murray Pearson. Data. Every moment we live in this world, the data reveal the truth.”
Nils: Overall I feel Combat Codes would work excellently for me as a film –
Beth: omg Nils you’re so right!
Nils: – the sci-fi elements and the martial arts scenes would be visually exciting to see brought to life. However as a book this unfortunately failed to hold my interest, I wasn’t particularly invested in the characters and I found most of the narrative far too predictable. I also feel as a finalist in the competition this leaned too heavily on the sci-fi genre and can’t really be classed as a fantasy.
Beth: As I’ve said, what I enjoyed most about this book was the story it wasn’t telling? If that makes sense? I didn’t really hold the predictability against it, aside for the descriptions of the fighting, I rather enjoyed Darwin’s writing style, and I liked the characters well enough.
The biggest issue for me is that of genre. I tried to really look for the fantasy elements in this story, and I would argue that the elements that would usually be fantasy – the way the different fighting circles affect the fighters, for example – could all be explained by the technology. Therefore, this is a sci-fi, not a fantasy, and unfortunately, this is a fantasy contest. It’s still a good book though, it was certainly an enjoyable read.
Theo: I think the book is a well crafted story that stretches the subgenre of “foundling finds family” in some interesting ways. The spectrals are the aspect that comes closest to fantasy, though it seems even they have a technological explanation albeit one whose details still elude me. I would add that Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire world, set in a flooded far future Earth also blurs technology and magic and suggests magic is occurring through fractures in a broken world. In its emphasis on raw visceral hand to hand combat, Combat Codes has a “Fantasy feel” but one that is perhaps more smoke and mirrors than actually hardwired into its plot or world.
Julia: Judged on its own, this was a quick, fun, fast paced and entertaining story! I breezed through it and I liked the school setting and the fights, despite it feeling just a bit too easy at times. As a YA book I’d happily recommend it to anyone who is looking for a gripping SciFi that keeps you hooked. However within the SPFBO I have to judge it in comparison to other entries and to the target audience of the contest, which is adult fantasy readers, and then I’ll have to say it is still enjoyable and a good read, but just can’t compete for top rank.
Filip: A thoroughly enjoyable novel, I thought, well outside my usual range of reads. The lack of honest-to-the-gods fantasy elements makes this one a peculiar finalist, but among the ten books that made it this far, this was an easy read–and a pleasant one.
(to nearest half mark)
Placed 7th in the Hive’s Finalist List.