The Combat Codes: New book mixes sci-fi, BJJ and MMA

Black belt author Alexander Darwin gives fight and fantasy fans a great summer read with, “The Combat Codes”

By: Kevin Bradley | 3 months ago
The Combat Codes: New book mixes sci-fi, BJJ and MMA
Credit: Ryan Best

Looking at the wide array of fantasy and sci-fi content on offer, you see a variety of martial arts represented well. From Legolas arrow sniping forty orcs in LOTR to the incredible sword choreography of Star Wars, weapons are treated as sacrosanct in the world of fiction. Unfortunately, hand-to-hand combat has struggled with faithful representation in these popular genres (we’re looking at you, Iron Fist). For one author, this gap in the MMA market helped inspire his debut fantasy series, The Combat Codes.

The Combat Codes

In 2016, Bostonian black belt Alexander Darwin released the first installment of the then-new book series. Set in a dystopian science-fantasy world, international conflict has traded armies and bombs for proxy-gladiatorial battle. Martial artists are trained from a young age in grappling and striking to represent their region in physical combat against other countries, the winner securing profitable trade deals, fuel and more. These fighters, called Grievars, are governed by a series of moral ideals revealed to the reader across the first book.

We fight neither to inflict pain nor to prolong suffering. We
fight neither to mollify anger nor to satisfy vendetta. We fight
neither to accumulate wealth nor to promote social standing.
We fight so the rest shall not have to.

First Precept of the Combat Codes

An orphan fighting prodigy named Cego is introduced early, confined to the lower class “Slave Circles” where unknown fighters are developed. His mentor, an ex-Grievar named Murray, sees potential in the young man and journeys with him to the famed fighting school, the Lyceum. The two delve deeper into the art of fighting, the relationships with fellow martial arts students and the hidden darkness within the world they live in.

“One of my big inspirations was, ‘How cool would it be if instead of college, you could go to this massive fight-palace and learn all you could?'” Darwin said in an interview with Bloody Elbow.

Since self publishing the book in 2016, Darwin has partnered with Orbit Books to re-release an updated edition of his series. Besides cleaning up the text with editors, Darwin also aimed to make the book more accessible to non-martial arts readers. “I wrote the book, especially the newer version, for people who’ve never done BJJ before,” he said. But despite the care for newcomers, fighting faithful will still find a treasure trove of references just for them.

A book MMA wants

As martial arts gained mainstream popularity, we see more and more attempts to refine the fighting in popular media. But for every train scene in Shang-Chi, we get the “wrestling” in Jessica Jones. Beyond the inaccurate portrayals, we still see a priority given to fight scenes with guns and other weapons.

The Combat Codes immediately lets you know it’s not about lip service. The first fight gives us a heavy description of different grappling scenarios going from takedown, ground scramble for position and a satisfying submission. Using the underappreciated parts of the sport, the book revels in the slow shifts in weight, the retention of guard and hand position as if it were an epic sword duel. Each action has clear ramifications, what giving up that grip means, what holding a submission a bit too long without success does to your gas tank, and gives inexperienced readers the same sense of anxiety through it’s prose.

Darwin isn’t blinded by grappling love. Several characters introduced favor a heavy striking style, and utilize grappling defense to keep things on the feet. Like many of us, we see Cego and other students forced to incorporate new techniques into their toolkit on their quest as Greivars. The comradery built between students at the Lyceum harkens to other fantasy books like Percy Jackson’s “Camp Half-Blood” or Hogwarts from that book I can’t remember.

The changes they undergo, the growth they experience as martial artists, comes directly from Darwin’s own life as a BJJ student and later teacher.

“Part of creating this environment came from my own real-world experience in jiu-jitsu schools,” Darwin explained. For readers who put time on the mat, these scenes of growth can be incredibly relatable and cathartic. You see Cego struggle with new techniques the same way you probably can’t berimbolo, and how different aspects of martial arts can come easier or harder for different students.”

(It’s me. I can’t Berimbolo)

The Lyceum itself becomes a secondary character thanks to these lived experiences. Real people’s own MMA or BJJ gyms and teams are reflected in the shared lives of the book’s characters, the lead up to a tournament, promotion day and the intersectional aspects of daily practice. Despite the far-out circumstances and setting, the authenticity of gym culture is represented both as a positive and negative. Injuries, performance anxiety and devotion to the team are portrayed realistically alongside the problems athletic obsession comes with.

“I wanted to portray the moral component that comes with fighting” Darwin said. “Both the modern day cultural tie-ins to martial arts, as well as an older sense of honor, like with the Samurai code of Bushido.”

The Combat Codes: Cover
The Combat Codes Cover
Design: Lauren Panepinto, Art: Peter Bollinger

The Combat Codes is available now

If you’re interested in hopping on before book two’s scheduled release this December, The Combat Codes is available now for order in the US and UK with the link here.

Keep up to date with Alex and the series’ development at his Instagram here.

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About the author
Kevin Bradley
Kevin Bradley

Kevin Bradley is a writer covering Bloody Elbow’s grappling beat. A longtime BJJ hobbyist, he began covering combat sports in 2018 for the Jiu-Jitsu Times with athlete interviews and fight breakdowns. He branched into audio the following year, producing and co-hosting the JJT Podcast for its 100 episode run. After a writing hiatus, occasionally contributing to various sites in the interim, he joined BE in late 2022.

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