What to read when you need a break from Warhammer 40,000

Last Updated on July 12, 2024

At its core, the Warhammer 40,000 universe is a story centred on a stricken empire in decline that’s desperately shoving every resource at its disposal between it and its own impending doom. One of those abundant resources is an endless supply of human beings religiously devoted to the Emperor, most of whom are willing (some, not so much) to throw themselves into the myriad battlefields of the galaxy for what they see as right. Be it fighting alien species, rooting out traitors, burning heretics who have thrown their lot in with the dark gods, or battling each other in gangs under continent-sized cities, the people of the Warhammer 40,000 universe provide the perfect unending perspectives for so many stories.

However, like almost anything, it’s easy to overdo it and feel a bit burned out. I love pasta. But if all I eat for two weeks straight are variations of pasta, then after a time I’m going to get pretty fucking sick of pasta. The same goes for 40K fiction, in my mind. Sometimes, you still want the things that make Warhammer 40,000 awesome, such as:

  • Epic space opera full of battles, politics, and SF awesomeness
  • A stricken galactic empire holding on by the skin of its teeth
  • Action and brother/sisterhood
  • An empire hiding the truth from its people
  • That crushing cyberpunk hive city feeling
  • Badarse inquisition-style characters

… but you just need something that doesn’t include bolters, lasguns, and manic shouts of “For the Emperor!”.

If you get what I mean, and you’re keen to read something with the same overarching themes but set in a different universe, then I’m here to help you with that. If you’re pointing at me and about to shout, “Burn the heretic!” then perhaps move on one of our other Warhammer 40,000 articles, like Where to Start Reading, Top YouTube Channels, or Favourite Artists.

The rest of you, come with me.

Epic space opera full of battles, politics, and SF awesomeness: Leviathan Wakes by James S.A Corey

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

Us Warhammer 40,000 fans love the big battles, the political intrigue, and the sci-fi / fantasy aspects of the universe we enjoy reading. Those three terms alone provide the Black Library authors with such a broad canvas upon which to play. Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey (pen name for collaborators Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) has all these things we search for.

One of the key things I love most (apart from the space battles and awesome battle tech) are the politics and factions within the universe of The Expanse. In much the same way that every Imperial faction from Holy Terra all the way to The Eye of Terror has its own angle and goals and the ruthlessness to destroy each other and put the Imperium at risk for their own gains, the factions in Leviathan Wakes (and the eight epic masterpieces that follow it) similarly do so. As they uncover the terrifying hidden wonders and history of our galaxy and universe, the characters of Leviathan Wakes and the brilliant series that follow it hyper focus on their own wants, often to the ruin of all.

If you enjoy void conflicts, epic marines and boarding parties, and factional machinations and intrigue, then Leviathan Wakes and every book that comes after it is for you.

Read our review here.

About the book

Humanity has colonised the solar system – Mars, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt and beyond – but the stars are still out of our reach.

Jim Holden is an officer on an ice miner making runs from the rings of Saturn to the mining stations of the Belt. When he and his crew discover a derelict ship called the Scopuli, they suddenly find themselves in possession of a deadly secret. A secret that someone is willing to kill for, and on an unimaginable scale. War is coming to the system, unless Jim can find out who abandoned the ship and why.

Detective Miller is looking for a girl. One girl in a system of billions, but her parents have money – and money talks. When the trail leads him to the Scopuli and Holden, they both realise this girl may hold the key to everything.

Holden and Miller must thread the needle between the Earth government, the Outer Planet revolutionaries and secret corporations, and the odds are against them. But out in the Belt, the rules are different, and one small ship can change the fate of the universe.

Start The Expanse with Leviathan Wakes

Buy this book on Amazon

 

A stricken galactic empire holding on by the skin of its teeth: Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Cover of Gideon the NinthAt its core, the Warhammer 40,000 universe is a story centred on a stricken empire in decline that’s desperately shoving every resource at its disposal between it and its own impending doom.

Plus science fantasy.

Gideon the Ninth is a bit like looking at the original fall of the old Imperium into Old Night, or the lead up to the Horus Heresy (depending on how far you want to stretch the imagination). There are excellent themes of historic betrayal ruining epic plans, of a very old emperor at the centre of an empire in strife testing necromancers and cavaliers to recruit in his elite corps to fight said betrayers, said emperor being a pretty horrible person despite having the fate of a population on his shoulders.

The execution, level of detail, and tone are where these two worlds are different. Gideon the Ninth has a very strong voice, with a lot of humour leavening the darkness and, beneath all the bones and angst, a thread of romance and focus on relationships that probably surpasses the foci on similar themes of the greater majority of Warhammer 40,000 books.

Did I mention it’s necromancers in space and therefore perfect for lovers of space fantasies?

If you’re somebody who loves these themes about Warhammer 40,000, and you are happy to stretch your boundaries a wee bit, then you’re going to love this brilliant space opera.

Read our review here.

About the book

The Emperor needs necromancers.

The Ninth Necromancer needs a swordswoman.

Gideon has a sword, some dirty magazines, and no more time for undead nonsense.

Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth, first in The Locked Tomb Trilogy, unveils a solar system of swordplay, cut-throat politics, and lesbian necromancers. Her characters leap off the page, as skillfully animated as arcane revenants. The result is a heart-pounding epic science fantasy.

Brought up by unfriendly, ossifying nuns, ancient retainers, and countless skeletons, Gideon is ready to abandon a life of servitude and an afterlife as a reanimated corpse. She packs up her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and prepares to launch her daring escape. But her childhood nemesis won’t set her free without a service.

Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House and bone witch extraordinaire, has been summoned into action. The Emperor has invited the heirs to each of his loyal Houses to a deadly trial of wits and skill. If Harrowhark succeeds she will be become an immortal, all-powerful servant of the Resurrection, but no necromancer can ascend without their cavalier. Without Gideon’s sword, Harrow will fail, and the Ninth House will die.

Of course, some things are better left dead.

Read Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Buy this book on Amazon

Action and brother/sisterhood: Stormblood by Jeremy Szal

Cover for Stormblood by Jeremy Szal

The close relationships built in battle are one the key foundations that most Warhammer 40,000 books are written around. Be it the superhuman Astartes, the Sisters of Battle, or any wing of the Astra Militarum, when you pick up one of those books, you know you’ll be reading about soldiers going into hell and back for the defence of the Imperium.

It can be difficult to find those kinds of military relationships that are written with the right undercurrent of shared pain and terror and loss, with the right levity that comes with years spent by each other’s side and for better or worse, knowing your brother in battle. In Stormblood Szal really nails this feeling of brotherhood and all the fascets it comes in for sci-fi military characters.

For the Imperial purists who just want to scream “BURN” every time they see another alien race, this book might not be your jam, as Szal plays with plenty of pretty awesome alien species. If you can let that little bit go through to the keeper, however, then this might just be the type of romp for you. Imperial Guard / Astra Militarum fans: this recommendation is for you.

Read our review here.

About the book

Vakov Fukasawa used to be a Reaper: a bio-enhanced soldier fighting for the Harmony, against a brutal invading empire. He’s still fighting now, on a different battlefield: taking on stormtech. To make him a perfect soldier, Harmony injected him with the DNA of an extinct alien race, altering his body chemistry and leaving him permanently addicted to adrenaline and aggression. But although they meant to create soldiers, at the same time Harmony created a new drug market that has millions hopelessly addicted to their own body chemistry.

Vakov may have walked away from Harmony, but they still know where to find him, and his former Reaper colleagues are being murdered by someone, or something – and Vakov is appalled to learn his estranged brother is involved. Suddenly it’s an investigation he can’t turn down . . . but the closer he comes to the truth, the more addicted to stormtech he becomes.
And it’s possible the war isn’t over, after all . . .

Read Stormblood by Jeremy Szal

Cover for Stormblood by Jeremy Szal

An empire hiding the truth from its people: The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley

Cover for The Light Brigade by Kameron HurleyEmpires hiding the truth from their soldiers and their citizens is probably one of the most human societal experiences out there. The price paid for that deception by the common grunt is the basis for so many books that giving you a scope for it would be like waving at the air–if you’re a Warhammer 40,000 fan, then every game you play, every book your read, every model you paint is based upon a ten millennia storyline started by a tiny group in power hiding the truth from their military leaders. So, you get what I mean.

Hurley’s The Light Brigade is a brilliant military sci-fi story that is perfect for fans of the Imperium’s military might, the reason behind the wars, the grunt’s perspective of it, and, importantly, the human impact of it all.

If you loved Dan Abnett’s Gaunt’s Ghosts then this book is for you. If you care about the human cost to the military sci-fi battle awesomeness, then this is the book for you. If you want to read about the human cost of the wars driven by those in power like the Imperium’s many selfish factions, then pick up The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley.

Read our review here.

About the book

They said the war would turn us into light.

I wanted to be counted among the heroes who gave us this better world.

The Light Brigade: it’s what soldiers fighting the war against Mars call the ones who come back…different. Grunts in the corporate corps get busted down into light to travel to and from interplanetary battlefronts. Everyone is changed by what the corps must do in order to break them down into light. Those who survive learn to stick to the mission brief—no matter what actually happens during combat.

Dietz, a fresh recruit in the infantry, begins to experience combat drops that don’t sync up with the platoon’s. And Dietz’s bad drops tell a story of the war that’s not at all what the corporate brass want the soldiers to think is going on.

Is Dietz really experiencing the war differently, or is it combat madness? Trying to untangle memory from mission brief and survive with sanity intact, Dietz is ready to become a hero—or maybe a villain; in war it’s hard to tell the difference.

Read The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley

Buy this book on Amazon

That crushing cyberpunk hive city feeling: Neon Leviathan by T.R. Napper

Cover of Neon Leviathan Anthology by TR NapperOne of the most awesome things about the Imperium in Warhammer 40,000 are the hive cities in which untold trillions of people across billions of worlds live and die. If you stacked the entire population of earth in a city the size of England, with the rich at the very top in the clear air above, and the rest crushed into the ever debilitating layers below, your head would be in the right spot to appreciate these locations for stories.

Napper’s stories are about the outcasts punching up. They are very human, with our limits and failures and crushed hopes and dreams laid bare for all to see. Napper’s varied characters and cyberpunk locations mixed with danger, violence, and a sense of moroseness that just at times reaches into your chest and squeezes is going to land really well for the more character-focussed fans of settings like Necromunda and Imperial hive cities.

As I’ve said above in the discussion on The Light Brigade and so many times before, for me, it’s the human characters that make Warhammer 40,000 what it is. It’s not the super soldiers or the tanks or the kilometres long void ships waging silent war above, it’s the people fed into the meatgrinder not only of war, but of the living body of the Imperium itself.

Read the reviews of Neon Leviathan over on Goodreads. You should also check out his novel set in the same universe 36 Streets–that underworld gang feel in a brutal cyberpunk setting just keeps getting dialled up.

About the book

A collection of stories about the outsiders – the criminals, the soldiers, the addicts, the mathematicians, the gamblers and the cage fighters, the refugees and the rebels.

From the battlefield, to alternate realities, to the mean streets of the dark city, we walk in the shoes of those who struggle to survive in a neon-saturated, tech-noir future. Twelve hard-edged stories from the dark, often violent, sometimes strange heart of cyberpunk, this collection – as with all the best science fiction – is an exploration of who were are now.

In the tradition of Dashiell Hammett, Philip K Dick, and David Mitchell, Neon Leviathan is a remarkable debut collection from a breakout new author.

Read Neon Leviathan by T.R. Napper

Buy this book on Amazon

Badarse inquisition-style characters: Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan

Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan

One of the most brutal, clandestine, and action packed factions of the Warhammer 40,000 universe is the Inquisition. Characters like Dan Abnett’s Gregor Eisenhorn and Jurgen from Warhammer TV’s Interrogator have created this awesome kind of far-future grim AF Jack Bauer character. A levelled up version with blanket approval to torch entire planets to root out heresy.

The best example I can think of that stars a super badarse character with that amazing mix of detective noir, military action, and brutal cyberpunk is Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon. Even better, Altered Carbon has been turned into a Netflix series to further immerse you in the kinds of worlds and stories that us 40k fans love to read about.

If the military action is more you jam, then worry not. Read this book and then immediately pick up book two, Broken Angels, which is essentially Vietnam war on another planet.

Read our review of Altered Carbon here.

About the book

In the twenty-fifth century, humankind has spread throughout the galaxy, monitored by the watchful eye of the U.N. While divisions in race, religion, and class still exist, advances in technology have redefined life itself. Now, assuming one can afford the expensive procedure, a person’s consciousness can be stored in a cortical stack at the base of the brain and easily downloaded into a new body (or “sleeve”) making death nothing more than a minor blip on a screen.

Ex-U.N. envoy Takeshi Kovacs has been killed before, but his last death was particularly painful. Dispatched one hundred eighty light-years from home, re-sleeved into a body in Bay City (formerly San Francisco, now with a rusted, dilapidated Golden Gate Bridge), Kovacs is thrown into the dark heart of a shady, far-reaching conspiracy that is vicious even by the standards of a society that treats “existence” as something that can be bought and sold.

Read Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan

Buy this book on Amazon

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Adrian Collins

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.

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