The Warhammer 40,000 universe is grim, dark, and brutally picturesque – the perfect sprawling sci-fi playground for those who prefer their fiction with a heavy dose of grit.
The future of the galaxy forty centuries from now is bleak. The Imperium of Man is ancient, vast, and crumbling, a fascist, xenophobic theocracy that is idealistically and organizationally the antithesis to Star Trek’s seemingly shiny Federation. Apart from the constant threat of overwhelming alien invasions and the weight of its own bloated administrative structure, the greatest danger to the Imperium is the nature of the galaxy itself. In the Warhammer 40,000 universe, faster-than-light travel is through the Warp, space’s hellish basement filled with the baser impulses and psychic dross of billions of souls over billions of years. This psychic contamination is continually bleeding out into real space, spawning malevolent entities and subverting entire planets. In the future, there is only entropy, hungry and malevolent and clawing at the fabric of reality itself.
This galaxy is vast, and the fiction that plays inside it has grown to a huge collection as well. Where to begin? Unlike the Star Wars universe, there’s no collection of central, recurring characters or main story arch to tie things together and from which to branch outward. With that in mind, it’s helpful to have some useful access points. The three books reviewed below give a good sampling for someone new to the universe or familiar with the game but wanting to dive deeper into the fiction.
Only the Emperor’s faithful legions of space marines stand between the Imperium and Chaos, and it’s with these legions and their sometimes allies that most of the vast corpus of Warhammer 40,000 fiction chooses to play. There’s an appeal in the mythos and gravitas of these meta-human soldiers, represented well in the incredibly detailed miniatures of the tabletop games. The space marine chapters are composed of engineered soldier-knights with ornate, gothic armor. Each chapter of the quasi-religious warrior monks has its own style and traditions and must hone spiritual as well as physical discipline to keep their minds free of the corrupting influence of the Warp.
Even here though, where to begin? There are dozens of space marine chapters, and their history stretches over thousands of years. One thing the Black Library (the publishing arm of Games Workshop, the company that created the Warhammer games) does well is issue omnibuses of novels featuring the various chapters, allowing fans to become familiar with the backstory and mythos of their favorite armies. A useful “sample platter” along these lines is the anthology edited by Nick Kyme and Lindsey Priestly, Heroes of the Space Marines. A collection of ten stories, all featuring the marines or their corrupted counterparts, the Chaos space marines, this collection allows the reader to do two things: quickly get introductions to the various factions to see what storylines and characters one might want to follow further and, perhaps more importantly, see which writers are bringing depth, deftness, and even humor to this grim-imagined future.
As someone who was initially unfamiliar with the universe, a couple of stories and authors in this volume immediately stuck out. “Renegades” by Gav Thorpe takes a look at the constant grind of battle and the toll it takes on a company of space marines, focusing on the burden of protecting lesser humans and propping up a corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy. Thorpe explores the temptation to mutiny against a static and futile regime and the fact that the only alternative to unswerving obedience is acquiescence to and corruption by Chaos. Another excellent piece is “One Hate” by Aaron Dembski-Bowden, a powerful look at the relationship between the marines and the human cannon-fodder Imperial guard legions with whom they often fight alongside. Again, the context is endless, constant war, but there’s a richness to Dembski-Bowden’s characters. It pleased me that he was the author of the next book on my pile.
Helsreach is a novel in the Black Library’s “Space Marine Battles” series, a self-contained story about the agonizing fall of a planet, seen through the lens of the battle for a single city. The Black Templar space marines are sent to lend aid to the Imperial Guard holding one of planet Armageddon’s several industrial cities against an invasion force of space orcs. As pulpish as all that sounds, Dembski-Bowden goes a wonderful job of bringing humor, pathos, and awe to his story. The planet, like most of the Warhammer 40,000 universe, is already broken before the invasion, a drained industrial wasteland with no hint of its original flora or fauna. Yet, it is home to billions of humans and, more importantly, an industrial hub of the empire.
Helsreach is the story of a siege, stocked with compelling characters from guardsmen to generals to dockmasters to the leader of the planet-bound Templars. The uneasy, grudging camaraderie that emerges between Grimaldus of the Templars and his human allies offsets the ambiguous ending, lacking clear victory, though Grimaldus finds a renewal of his faith when he realizes the battle is about the history and heritage of the planet – a history and heritage we see nothing of but a few dusty relics. The planet Armageddon is the Warhammer 40,000 universe in a nutshell: a history so deep and effaced that nothing is left but weathered bones to fight over.
What really makes this novel work is how Dembski-Bowden brings the strange and awesome aspects of this universe to life, chief of which are the huge, lumbering war engines of the Legio Invigilata. These are more than just giant mechs. Rather, they’re walking monasteries, god-machines, battle-cathedrals. This is all perfectly illustrated by the character of a priest who begins documenting the battle for Helsreach from his monastic cell perched on the back of one of these immense battle platforms.
Helsreach is a great wade-in point that I would recommend to anyone who enjoys grimdark sci-fi, even if they had never heard of Warhammer. It is self-contained enough to enjoy for itself, though it points outward with respect to the cult and rituals of the Templar space marines, the technology and culture of the Adeptus Mechanicus and gives a taste of the grinding waste, futility and inevitability of this future of war without end.
Finally, there are the two combined novels that compose Adeptus Mechanicus, novels focusing on the second head of the double-headed imperial eagle that represents the Imperium. The Imperium is a twin empire, a symbiotic relationship between the Empires of Terra and Mars. And the empire of Mars is a technological hegemony, cybernetic and interlinked, something like the Bene Tleilax brotherhood from the original Dune series meets Star Trek’s Borg collective. Rob Sanders does a good job of humanizing these techno-priests, even as he highlights their inhuman characteristics. The first novel focuses on a soldier leading an ill-fated invasion to recapture an industrial planet lost to Chaos in a Warp storm. In the second book, Sanders gives an even broader view of battle from a commander’s perspective overseeing what has become a system-wide siege of a world. It’s a different kind of warfare than we get on Armageddon in Helsreach. Instead of troops of (augmented) flesh and blood, we see war as the Mechanicus does, a system of interlinked soldiers, ships, and weapons in which the line between body and weapon is thin and the cybernetic soldiers can have their wills overridden, their emotions dialed down, and their viewpoint commandeered by a near-omniscient techno-mage overlord orchestrating it all.
This vantage means that the connection with the characters is not as strong as in the other books, as these characters are little more than pawns on a battleground. Sanders’s descriptions are kaleidoscopic swirls of techno-weaponry and destruction that at times get cumbersome but, at other times, sweep the reader along with the spectacle. Like Helsreach, there is no real redemption or closure at the end of these interlinked novels, though there are some satisfying plot twists. Adeptus Mechanicus lacks the compelling nature of Dembski-Bowden’s writing, but the mechanized war it paints is all its own.
Warhammer 40,000 is a deep, dark universe – one that ironically contains little sex, gore or swearing – with a Byzantine history and dizzying array of backstories. Each one of these three books provides an accessible entry-point into that miasma of battle. In this universe, as these volumes show, it is warfare all the way down, a universe built quite literally on battle. But, befitting the grim and dark, these battles are never simply black and white. There are no clear lines between good and evil, and the conflict is always on a background of grasping Chaos and entropy.