Alexander Darwin is yet another science fiction self-published success story. Darwin self-published his original debut The Combat Codes in 2015, and quickly followed up with two sequels. These garnered enough attention, including winning Mark Lawrence’s 6th self-published fantasy blog-off, for Darwin to be picked up by UK publisher Orbit which is now rereleasing the trilogy with some extra material added. For those looking for the quick precis – The Combat Codes is a martial arts-inspired, science fiction (with a dash of fantasy) academy tale, with all the elements that are likely to make it big with a section of the YA crowd.
The Combat Codes opens in the Deeps, an underground city where the biggest industry seems to be training young people to fight each other in the ring. The Deeps is part of a larger world in which all disputes are settled through one on one combat, with the Grievar knights being exemplars of a particular code of conduct known as the Combat Codes. Ex-Grievar Knight Murray Pearson is now a scout for new talent and in the Deeps he finds it in a young fighter called Cego. Cego might be an unknown but in his flashbacks it is clear he has been trained by someone and taught the now dying Combat Code. Cego is part of a slave group trained mercilessly to fight and die in the rings but he, and some of his colleagues (for no other reason, it feels, than to give him friends and enemies in the second half of the book) are plucked out of that world and picked to go to the surface and train in the elite Lyceum to be Knights themselves.
The Combat Codes wears its precedents on its sleeve. It has elements of Rocky and The Karate Kid, more than a little Harry Potter and any other magical academy book you care to name (including ironically Mark Lawrence’s own Book of the Ancestor Series), plenty of Ender’s Game, a smattering of The Hunger Games, and many many more. And while there are plenty of science fiction and fantasy books that manage to transcend their influences, The Combat Codes is not one of them.
In this vein Pearson and Cego and their colleagues and antagonists only come across as types that readers will have encountered in these narratives before. Pearson is the old hero who is being ground down by the new regime but still sees hope in the old ways. Cego is the magically talented youngster who has lost some of his memory and who Pearson has to mentor in order that the day can be saved. Each has their own adversaries – for Pearson it is the political machine and the new order of politics and for Cego it is the usual schoolyard prejudices and fellow student who hates him… just because. And they then have their allies – Pearson’s old Knight colleagues and Cego’s crew of six misfit students (he has to pick them so of course he picks the misfits) who bond and work together to help him.
The one element that stands this narrative apart is in the description of the fighting and the philosophy of fighting. Darwin is a mixed martial artist and he delivers a ring of truth and excitement into the many hand-to-hand combat scenes (many between young adults or children). But he also explores a philosophy that includes meditation and mercy. While the world building is occasionally a little muddled, Darwin does manage to seed some intriguing elements that should bring readers who are engaged enough along with him to the second book in the series.