Warhammer 40K: Where to start reading

The Warhammer 40K universe books are legion. They cover almost every kind of action and war sci-fi you could want, from mass trench warfare, to special ops, secret agents, void wars, superhuman soldiers and demigods battling aliens and demons. The stories are fascinating and action-packed and the universe Games Workshop have created for their authors to play in mean that there is absolutely no end to the material and awesomesauce coming out of the Imperium and its many, many foes.

BUT, if you’re only just coming across this unbelievable treasure trove of fiction, just where the bloody hell should you start?

Fear not! The team and I have put together a starter pack for you. It covers a range of factions, from the puniest human to the most terrifying of traitor, and covers 10,000 years of Imperial history.

Welcome to the addiction.

Gaunts Ghosts by Dan Abnett

To me, 40K has never been about the space marines. It’s the Guard who truly put the horror and size of the future universe in perspective for the reader. The layperson given a lasrifle and a helmet and sent into the meatgrinder with millions of others, creating a wall of mangled bodies between the people of the Imperium and all that would tear it down. What it’s like to be a normal human being in a universe of superhuman space marines, vicious dark eldar, brutal orks, soulless and all-consuming tyranids, and the terrifying Chaos space marines? No author delivers this experience better than Dan Abnett. To sum up Gaunt’s Ghosts as quickly as possible: its pretty much Band of Brothers in the 40K setting. It’s unrelenting, brutal, and you can all-but guarantee you’ll be shedding a tear over the shock loss of a favourite character at some point.

These books are about as moreish as war SF gets (and there are stacks of them).

Ultramarines by Graham McNeill

If you’re new to 40K, the Ultramaries are the cookie-cutter space marines, and probably the most recognisable faction in the entire universe. Based on the ancient Romans, they are plentiful, have a long list of successor chapters, and are generally considered by the greater 40K gaming community to be boring AF when compared to the other chapters (eg. the ones based on vikings, or vampires, or Ghenkis Khan’s lot). Enter Graham McNeill. He’s taken the Ultramarines and made them bloody interesting by featuring a captain who is not cookie cutter. Uriel Ventris is a brilliant character–a bit of a square peg in a round hole–and his story will really drive your understanding of the space marine chapters and the kind of bureaucratic nonsense that has helped stagnate the Imperium, where innovation once drove mortals to conquer the stars once more.

Space Wolves by William King

This was one of the first 40k series I ever read, and when juxtaposed against Graham McNeill’s Ultramarines it really helps new readers understand the full gamut of legion types out there–everything from space Romans to space vikings! The Space Wolves books by William King (later joined by Lee Lightner) are an adrenaline-packed excitement-fest of war, brotherhood, drinking, and, at times, intrigue centred on one of the legion’s most storied characters, Ragnar Blackmane.

Eisenhorn by Dan Abnett

If Jack Bauer from the hit series 24 was made 20,000 years in the future, his name would be Gregor Eisenhorn. Full of action and intrigue, and delving into the dark political machinations of the Imperium, Eisenhorn is the perfect Warhammer 40k series if 24Jack Ryan, and maybe even a little Altered Carbon are more your jam than massed warfare pitting demigods against aliens. Out of all of the 40K series, I reckon Eisenhorn is the most likely to get a Netflix series.

The Beast Arises by Various

Black Library’s The Beast Arises series was an epic venture–a twelve book Warhammer 40k series which unfolded over the course of 2016. Set in an Imperium still reeling from the effects of the Horus Heresy (making this technically Warhammer 31K), it focused on humanity’s efforts to stave off an assault by their age-old foes, the ferocious, bestial orks. However, these orks are different–bigger, stronger, and worse, smarter; plus, they’ve parked an assault moon at Terra’s front door. Confounding issues are the Imperium’s depleted military, as well as constant, byzantine in-fighting and backstabbing among Terra’s High Lords. If you enjoy some political duelling to go along with your bone-crunching action, or you just want to witness the ferocity of the orks in their brutal glory, then this is the series for you.

Night Lords by Aaron Dembski-Bowden

Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s iconic Night Lords trilogy (Soul Hunter, Blood Reaver, Void Stalker) is not only universally accepted as the greatest Warhammer 40K series centered on Chaos; in fact, many Black Library readers name it as their favourite series of all. This is some feat; as the Night Lords are perhaps the most odious and despicable of all the Traitor Legions–repulsive sadists who not only utilise, but also delight in terror and torture. However, Dembski-Bowden elevates his dramatis personae–Apothecary Talos and his First Claw retinue–with pathos and a sense, albeit warped, of personal honour. It is integral to the success of a Chaos series that they are portrayed as more than snarling villains, and the Night Lords trilogy succeeds in spades.

The Horus Heresy by various

Set in the year 30,ooo, the Horus Heresy are the 50 books that set the backdrop for the the current timeline that Games Workshop’s tabletop game and most of Black Library’s publications are set in. It begins two hundred years into the Emperor’s Great Crusade, where humanity streaks across the stars to claim all of its lost planets and conquer new ones, and culminates in the Seige of Terra at the end of the great betrayal that sparks 10,000 years of stalemate war where humanity scraps and scrapes to keep its foothold in the stars. When I was growing up, trying to find any and every smudge of fluff and story on the Horus Heresy that I could find was a bit of an obsession. I gave up playing and reading 40K in my late teens, and then heard about this series when I turned 20. Once again I was hopelessly hooked. Now, like any series this long, within the 50 books there are a few ones that are superfluous, BUT at the very least you need the first three books that detail the first cracks in the brotherhood of primarchs and the influence of Chaos on Horus in your life.

More about Warhammer 40k

The Warhammer 40K universe is so rich with stories told in a range of mediums, that we tend to cover it a fair bit here at Grimdark Magazine. For more articles, click here.

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Adrian Collins

Adrian Collins runs Grimdark Magazine and loves anything to do with telling darker stories. Doesn't matter the format, or when it was published or produced--just give him a grim story told in a dark world by a morally grey protagonist and this bloke's in his happy place. Add in a barrel aged stout to sip on after a cheeky body surf under the Australian sun, and that's his heaven.