Editor’s Note: Our overall rating for The Combat Codes is 7/10 as stated above. But our SPFBO rating is 3.5/10. See below for more details.

“We fight so the rest shall not have to.”

In a world where single combat determines the fate of nations, the Grievar fight so 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 unraveled by forces greater than he could ever imagine.

At some point in the distant past in the world of The Combat Codes, a line of warriors stepped forward to settle national conflicts via one-on-one combat, like a world championship kickboxing match where the athletes fight for not only national pride but land and resources. It’s the medieval concept of wars being won by champions rather than armies (used to great effect at the conclusion of Guy Gavriel Kay’s Lions of Al-Rassan) set in a high-tech world. Think: Blade Runner meets Gladiator meets Ender’s Game. There’s a bit of Hunger Games in there too, as the world is economically stratified according to genetic lineages. The elite live in fabulous luxury while a huge underclass lives in squalor, brawling over scraps. We see the worst and the best of this world through the eyes of Cego, a twelve-year-old boy trained from birth in the titular Combat Codes, which are encapsulated in the phrase, “We fight so the rest shall not have to.”

Raised in an idyllic paradise but mysteriously transported to a grimy underground slum, Cego is captured by slavers who force children to fight for the entertainment of the poor. Fortunately, he’s spotted by Murray, a disgruntled scout for the Lyceum, an elite academy that trains the gladiators (called Grievars) who fight one-on-one proxy wars in the ring. Freed of slavery and enrolled at the Lyceum, Cego begins his training while Murray becomes embroiled in a political struggle over whether Lyceum-trained fighters should adhere to the code of honor spelled out in the Combat Codes or should do anything it takes to win.

Our Thoughts

As a whole, the team thought this was a thoroughly engaging novel with compelling characters and excellent pacing told with gripping, often beautiful prose. The fight scenes are tense and suspenseful, and as a reader you feel every punch and kick. The scenes of Cego’s upbringing on the island paradise were rendered beautifully and in the first half of the book provide a lovely counterweight to the horrors he experiences as a slave. We also enjoyed the author’s science fiction spin on the magical-academy and chosen-one tropes. However, most judges thought the second half of the book wasn’t as strong as the first half, primarily because the story of “outcast boy goes to elite school and learns he’s very special” is all-too familiar, especially when Cego’s new friends and enemies were stock characters we’ve met too many times. Adding up these pluses and minuses, the judges in our group consistently rated The Combat Codes a 7 out of 10 stars, and that is the score that will remain in the book’s banner on the Fantasy-Faction website.

However, for SPFBO purposes, in our view this novel does not qualify as fantasy. This decision is subjective, and other judging teams have had different opinions on whether Darwin’s flirtation with fantasy tropes like the magical academy and chosen one, as well as the superhuman abilities of the fighters themselves, are sufficient reason to call The Combat Codes a fantasy. Yet for us, that flirtation was no more than a passing waggle of the eyebrows before the story steps aboard the monorail and hurtles off to Tomorrow Land. We didn’t object to the advanced tech—we just wanted something that wasn’t attributable to it.

If the Lyceum had trained the Grievars to access mystical powers like the Jedi or Bene Gesserit, we would have heartily embraced the book as a science fantasy. The problem for us was the fighters’ super amazing martial arts didn’t rise to the level of mystical, because within the book there’s a technological explanation for their abilities. Hence, discussing how other judging groups have handled this concern, we decided to cut our Fantasy-Faction rating in half, and the final SPFBO score is 3.5.

Comments from selected judges include:

A. M.

I loved the first half of the book and thought Cego’s memories of his time on the island were beautifully poignant and scenic. Unfortunately, the second half was too much like Harry Potter meets Hunger Games, including the Hermione Granger clone (why must the sole female friend always be a loner academic whiz?). The ending was also disappointing in that the tragic event occurs off-page; the tragedy and accompanying reveal would have been far more powerful if Cego had witnessed it rather than finding out after the fact.


I enjoyed this book, which was a hard one to judge as it was impossible to categorize as a fantasy novel. Overall, it is a well written book, just not for this competition. Familiar tropes were there—the training school where the weak overcome the bullies, the nobody who comes from nowhere to become the hero, unique fighting/training styles, and the exploitation of people by their conquerors—but these can be found in many genres. It does bring to mind novels such as Dune and some of the later Ann McCaffery books where tech is used but they had fantastical creatures such as sand worms and dragons.

The Daimyo called Zero that Murray meets to find out the truth of Cego is definitely a sci-fi construct, and when Cego fights in the sims to gain a place in the training school, he is fighting cyborgs. Hence, I feel that The Combat Codes does not fit the SPFBO criteria set in the rules. Finally, the ending didn’t really come as much of as a surprise.

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Our judges are A. M. Justice, Julia Kitvaria Sarene, Kartik Narayanan, Kerry Smith, Lynn Kempner, and Mariëlle Ooms-Voges. If you’d like to learn more about us, including our likes and dislikes, you can read about them here.

Any queries should be directed to A.M. Justice via DM (Facebook/Twitter).


By A. M. Justice

A. M. Justice is an award-winning author of science fiction and fantasy, a freelance science writer, and an amateur astronomer, scuba diver, and once and future tango dancer. She currently lives in Brooklyn with a husband, a daughter, and two cats. You can follow her on Twitter @AMJusticeWrites.

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