Get started reading Warhammer 40k
The Warhammer 40K 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 reading 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 40k books are about as moreish as war SF gets (and there are stacks of them).
You can read our review of First and Only here.
Start reading Gaunts Ghosts with First and Only
For a thousand years, the Sabbat Worlds have been lost to the Imperium, claimed by the dread powers of Chaos. Now, a mighty crusade seeks to return the sector to Imperial rule. And at the forefront of that crusade are Colonel-Commissar Ibram Gaunt and the Tanith First and Only – better known as Gaunt’s Ghosts. Trapped in the grinding trench warfare of Fortis Binary, the Ghosts find themselves drawn into a conspiracy to assassinate the crusade’s leader, Warmaster Macaroth.
With enemies all around them and no one to trust, Gaunt and his men must find a way to save the warmaster and prevent the Sabbat Worlds Crusade from falling into anarchy – even if it means waging war on their supposed allies.
Ultramarines by Graham McNeill
If you’re new to the world of 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.
Start reading Ultramarines with Nightbringer
Newly promoted to the captaincy of the Ultramarines Fourth Company, Uriel Ventris leads his warriors to the world of Pavonis, where vicious alien raiders are bringing death and destruction. As Pavonis descends into political turmoil, Uriel and his warriors must battle the xenos and unravel a plot to unleash an ancient evil buried deep beneath the world – the mysterious and deadly Nightbringer.
Space Wolves by William King
This was one of the first 40k book 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.
The Space Wolves series is an awesome way to get into 40k books if you’re not looking to go too Grimdark in your first dip in this pool.
Start reading Space Wolves with Space Wolf
On the grim death-world of Fenris, the Space Wolves Chapter selects its aspirants from the best and brightest of the young tribesmen. Ragnar of the Thunderfist tribe finds his life changed forever when he is chosen. After being revived from a savage death on the battlefield, Ragnar is recruited into the fearsome Space Wolves Chapter. He is then thrown into a galactic war against the dark forces of Chaos. However, the implanting of the Canis Helix unleashes his primal instincts and Ragnar must fight to control the beast within him.
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 book series if 24, Jack 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.
So, if you like reading about your gritty cyberpunk detectives, epic heroes in the shadows, and treachery running rife in a rotting empire, then start reading Xenos.
Start reading Eisenhorn with Xenos
The Inquisition moves amongst mankind like an avenging shadow, striking down the enemies of humanity with uncompromising ruthlessness. When he finally corners an old foe, Inquisitor Gregor Eisenhorn is drawn into a sinister conspiracy. As events unfold and he gathers allies – and enemies – Eisenhorn faces a vast interstellar cabal and the dark power of daemons, all racing to recover an arcane text of abominable power: an ancient tome known as the Necroteuch.
The Beast Arises by Various
Black Library’s The Beast Arises series was an epic venture–a twelve title Warhammer 40k book 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.
Start reading The Beast Arises with I Am Slaughter
It is the thirty-second millennium and the Imperium is at peace. The Traitor Legions of Chaos are but a distant memory and the many alien races that have long plagued mankind are held in check by the Space Marines. When a mission to exterminate one such xenos breed on the world of Ardamantua draws in more of their forces, the Imperial Fists abandon the walls of Terra for the first time in more than a thousand years. And when another, greater, foe strikes, even the heroic sons of Rogal Dorn may be powerless against it. The Beast Arises… and it is mighty.
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 book 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.
Start reading Night Lords with Soul Hunter
The Night Lords were once among the most potent forces of the Imperium, Space Marines who used fear itself as their weapon. Now, cast adrift from the Emperor’s light and hunted as heretics after their monstrous betrayal, the Night Lords clad themselves in symbols of death and fight the Long War, bringing pain and terror to all who worship the corpse-god of Terra. A summons from Warmaster Abaddon sends these rebels on a dangerous journey that leads inexorably to a conflict with the Emperor’s chosen warriors: the Blood Angels.
The Horus Heresy by various
Set in the year 30,ooo, the Horus Heresy are the 50 Warhammer 40k 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.
Start reading Horus Heresy with Horus Rising
It is the 31st millennium. Under the benevolent leadership of the Immortal Emperor, the Imperium of Man has stretched out across the galaxy.
It is a golden age of discovery and conquest. But now, on the eve of victory, the Emperor leaves the front lines, entrusting the great crusade to his favourite son, Horus. Promoted to Warmaster, can the idealistic Horus carry out the Emperor’s grand plan, or will this promotion sow the seeds of heresy amongst his brothers?
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.