Someone asked me on Twitter recently if I’d written anything about where to get started with reading Black Library books, for someone just getting into Warhammer 40,000. That’s actually a really interesting question which I thought deserved more of an answer than I could give on Twitter, so here I’m going to have a go at answering it in a bit more detail.
Why is it such an interesting question? Well personally I can get stuck into pretty much any 40k story with a fair amount of confidence that I’ll know what’s going on, simply because I’ve been reading stories set in the grim darkness of the far future for over twenty years (my copy of Inquisitor by Ian Watson was published in 1993!). I’m more familiar with the 40k universe than I am with pretty much any other setting, so it’s easy to forget that there can be a lot of assumed knowledge in these stories.
What about someone who’s only just getting into 40k, though? Or even someone who’s just happened to have seen the great cover art and fancies having a go? It’s probably tricky even figuring out which book to start with within a single series, never mind which one to start with overall, so it must be a pretty daunting proposition if you haven’t got someone to introduce you and give you somewhere to start.
Just to hammer the point home, let’s have a look at a few numbers:
- The Horus Heresy series currently runs to over seventy novels, novellas & audio dramas, plus dozens of short stories.
- The Space Marine Battles series contains somewhere in the region of forty novels, novellas & audios.
- Dan Abnett’s Gaunt’s Ghosts series currently comprises fifteen books (thirteen novels & two anthologies), split into four separate story arcs.
- The Ciaphas Cain series by Sandy Mitchell runs to nine novels, one novella and assorted audios and short stories.
- The big series at the moment is The Beast Arises, currently up to book ten with two more to go.
- Add to that countless trilogies, goodness knows how many standalone books and over twenty years worth of short stories.
That’s a lot of stories. Where to start? It’s a really good question.
This is obviously all informed by my tastes and reading history, but I’ve put together a list of good places to start. I’m actually going to begin in a place that not everyone’s going to be keen on, but which harks back to where I started myself – the wonderful world of short stories. Short stories aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, so if you’re not a fan then by all means skip ahead and ignore this section. If you are a fan though, read on…
Yes please, short stories are great!
The great thing about short stories is that you don’t have to invest too much time into each one, so you can happily skip along until you find something that really appeals to you. Once you’ve found something, then you can go look up some novels and really dig into that faction/character/setting/whatever.
In the mid-90s, way back in Black Library’s early days, they published a bi-monthly (I think) magazine full of short stories, comics and illustrations called Inferno! Heavily featuring authors like Dan Abnett, William King and Gav Thorpe it really set the tone for what Black Library would go on to produce – it’s not easy to get hold of (luckily I still have my copies of issues 1-16) but if you can find it, this is an absolute goldmine of 40k (and Warhammer Fantasy) stories. Some of the stuff included might not quite be up to date in terms of the game’s canon, but I really wouldn’t worry – it’s too good for that to matter!
More realistically, there have been a load of short story anthologies published over the years, and these are also really good places to start. The four volumes in the …of the Space Marines series are pretty up to date and largely contain great stories, and crucially are all available as ebooks on the Black Library website.
- Heroes of the Space Marines.
- Legends of the Space Marines.
- Victories of the Space Marines.
- Treacheries of the Space Marines (this one’s about the bad guys, unsurprisingly).
These are all (obviously) Space Marine-focused though, so if you fancy something a little wider ranging you could go for one of these:
- The classic Let the Galaxy Burn anthology isn’t currently in print at all, but you might find one in a second hand shop or on ebay. If you can, buy it straight away – it’s brilliant!
- Planetkill is available as an ebook from Black Library, and focuses on massive scale planetary destruction. That’s always a good thing in a 40k story.
- Fear the Alien – to nobody’s surprise – focuses on the many alien races humanity has to deal with the 41st millennium.
There are also all sorts of ebook collections available from Black Library, so if there’s a particular faction you’re interested in you might be able to find a set of short stories about them here.
I’m not into short stories – give me proper books!
Fair enough, there’s plenty here to choose from. What’s tricky is narrowing things down – do you want to read standalone books or massive series? Do you like full-on action, or would you prefer a bit of mystery/intrigue/politics [delete as applicable] alongside the battles? Are you more into one-man-against-the-world stories or do you like the ensembles more?
I’ve tried to split things up below, so you can hopefully have a look to see what appeals to you the most…
You want ensembles? I give you the
Imperial Guard Astra Militarum
Pretty much top of everyone’s list of Imperial Guard stories – with good reason – is Dan Abnett’s Gaunt’s Ghosts series. It’s just brilliant. I’m not going to waffle on about this – if you like your war stories gritty and human, with a massive cast of relatable characters (i.e. not genetically engineered super soldiers), then this is the place to start. This is actually one of the places I’d suggest you start if you’re genuinely brand new to the hobby, or just fancy seeing what all the fuss is about. It’s a good intro to the 40k universe all told, as well as being a fantastic story. Where to begin with this (massive) series though? Right back to the beginning – don’t try to dip in and out, otherwise you’ll end up with some serious spoilers. Get in there with book one – First and Only.
If you fancy some more Imperial Guard stories (apparently they’re called the Astra Militarum nowadays. Bah humbug!) then I’d suggest checking these bad boys out:
- Honour Imperialis – Aaron Dembski-Bowden, Rob Sanders and Steve Parker joined in unholy matrimony…well, in an anthology of Imperial Guard novels. This is as good a collection of Guard stories as you’ll find anywhere, and it’s available in paperback and ebook!
- The Commissar Yarrick series by David Annandale. Less of an ensemble piece maybe, but Yarrick’s a great character and Annandale has a really good handle on him. Well worth checking out.
- Baneblade by Guy Haley. Much more than just a book about a tank, it’s a hugely entertaining story and is due a sequel (Shadowsword) pretty soon.
Imperial Guard? Bah, those guys are puny! Give me Space Marines…
You want Space Marines? You’ve got ‘em. Without further ado, I give you…the Space Marine Battles series – each one focusing on, well…a big battle, these pretty much do what they say on the tin. It’s not a sequential series, so you can dip in and out however you’d like – I would suggest just picking the books that feature your favourite chapters and seeing how you get on. If you’re still not sure, here are a few of my favourites:
- Helsreach by Aaron Dembski-Bowden. Okay, it’s the obvious choice, but that’s because it’s really good! Black Templars fighting on Armageddon, plus one of the best Imperial Guard characters this side of the Gaunt’s Ghosts series. There’s also a brilliant accompanying novella – Blood and Fire.
- Wrath of Iron by Chris Wraight. Some might prefer Battle of the Fang, but for me this is where it’s at from Wraight – the Iron Hands are brutal, unstoppable, and only just come across as the good guys. Grim and dark indeed.
- Blades of Damocles and Storm of Damocles, by Phil Kelly and Justin D. Hill respectively. Along with the Damocles collection, these two novels tell very different stories set at opposite ends of the same conflict. Check out Blades for some of the most exhilarating, high-flying action scenes you could hope for, and Storm for some of the most human-seeming Space Marines around.
I’m not a big fan of warning people off books, but I’m going to make one exception here. Bearing in mind that this is only my opinion – I would personally avoid The World Engine by Ben Counter. It was a big disappointment for me – maybe you’ll like it, but I couldn’t in good conscience recommend it.
That enough Space Marines for you? No? What?! Okay, okay…so maybe you want something that’s not quite so totally focused on action, but still based around Space Marines? How about…
- Graham McNeill’s Uriel Ventris series. It’s heavy on the adventure side of things, and a little different to most Ultramarines stories, but Ventris and Honsou make a great protagonist/antagonist combo.
- The Night Lords trilogy by Aaron Dembski-Bowden. This one’s maybe not for total new starters, as it’s super dark and focused entirely on the bad guys, but it’s damn good. Like really, really good. If you like your characters on the far edge of anti-hero…you’ll like these books.
- Steve Parker’s novel Deathwatch. Still possibly the best Deathwatch story ever released, this is a corker of a book that does a great job of bringing together Marines from different chapters without diluting any of their character. There’s also a couple of great short stories to extend things out nicely.
A lot of 40k fans (like me) will have cut their teeth on authors like William King and Ben Counter, both of whom have written Space Marine-focused series, and there’s an argument to say that these series are still good places to start. For me, they’re inextricably linked with the period of time in which I read them, so it’s hard to be objective, but I just err on the side of caution here as I think they’re a little off-centre in their depictions of Space Marines compared to how they tend to be drawn these days. Still, if you fancy something a little more old school you could do worse than William King’s Space Wolf series or Ben Counter’s Soul Drinkers series.
Lastly, and I promise I’ll stop wittering on about short stories eventually…but there’s a fascinating collection called Space Marines: Angels of Death, currently only available in digital form, which brings together 28 micro-shorts (i.e. approximately 1000 words each) from loads of different authors. The idea is that each one gives a tiny taste of the chapter they’re featuring, and they include stories about such rarities as the Carcharadons, Executioners, Doom Legion, Sable Swords and Angels Penitent (among many more). If you like short fiction, this is a gem of a collection.
Maybe…something that’s a bit less ‘military’?
You mean books that are still clearly 40k but where the focus is away from the big battlefields? No problem, I’ve got just the books for you…
- Dan Abnett once again, this time his Eisenhorn trilogy – beginning with the first novel Xenos. It fleshes out the Imperium like nothing before (or since, really) as the titular Inquisitor investigates a galaxy-spanning conspiracy, and stands as a fantastic book regardless of genre. Stone. Cold. Classic.
- The Shira Calpurnia books by Matt Farrer. A brilliant trilogy looking at life as one of the Adeptus Arbites, it’s got great characters and gives us something really different to the usual 40k stories.
- John French’s Ahriman trilogy. It’s dark and twisty, with protagonists who are arrogant, stubborn and deeply untrustworthy, but it’s wonderfully plotted and full of great characters. Maybe one to read once you’re a little more comfortable with the 40k universe, but definitely one to read!
For fans of the 40k universe who enjoy a good bit of action but like their books to be more than just bolters and chainswords, these are the sort of books that really deliver. Those three authors (Abnett, Farrer and French), along with Dembski-Bowden and Chris Wraight, tend to be the ones to watch if that’s what you’re after.
Anything with a bit of humour in it?
Well, the 40k universe is heavy on the grim and the dark, and not so good for the light-hearted stuff. That being said, Sandy Mitchell’s Ciaphas Cain series is the one shining light here – essentially Flashman in space, it features an Imperial Guard commissar whose motivations remain consistently self-centred throughout the whole series, and yet who consistently finds himself in highly dangerous situations and somehow comes out smelling of roses too. Written with a delightfully self-deprecating first person voice and using a simple but oh-so-effective device to add depth and context, this is a series to delight in for anyone with a dark sense of humour.
What about the aliens? Plenty of them, right?
Well…yes, but they tend to be the antagonists. There are two main exceptions to that rule – the Path of the Eldar trilogy by Gav Thorpe and the Path of the Dark Eldar trilogy by Andy Chambers. I’ve actually only read one of these books – Gav’s Path of the Warrior, which was excellent – so I can’t speak with much authority here, but they tend to be well liked and recommended. There’s really not much else that’s from an alien viewpoint – a handful of stories featuring the tau, the occasional short story from the viewpoint of the orks or necrons, and a few more eldar stories.
Something worth mentioning though is the Phoenix Lords series, which currently only extends to a single book – Gav Thorpe’s Asurmen: Hand of Asuryan. It’s a short but excellent novel, well worth a read if you’re an eldar fan, but it’s also soon to be followed by a novel featuring Jain Zar, also by Gav. I’m not sure what Black Library’s plans are, whether they’re definitely going to commission books about all of the Phoenix Lords and whether we’ll maybe see some written by other authors, but on the basis of Asurmen I’m certainly hoping we get them all!
How about some of the earlier novels I keep hearing about?
You mean…the really early stuff? The books with all the mad stuff before 40k became what it is now? Stuff like Space Marine Scouts stealing a Warlord Titan, a Callidus assassin morphing into a genestealer, or a penal legion sent on endless suicide missions? Yep, I can recommend some of those…
- Start pretty much back where it all began, with Space Marine by Ian Watson. It’s three-sheets-to-the-wind crazy, featuring the aforementioned Scouts/Titan moment along with Squats (space dwarves), Zoats (um…space centaur lizard things) and all sorts of other madness. It’s bonkers but brilliant, and bears next to no resemblance to 40k as it is now…oh, and it’s also MUCH more graphic than 40k is now. NSFW.
- Gav Thorpe’s Last Chancers trilogy was an early favourite of mine, pitting a ragged crew of ne’er do well criminals against increasingly desperate odds. It’s maybe not the most original of series, but it’s great fun. Also, grim and dark.
- If you like your space battles, Gordon Rennie wrote two fantastic books – Execution Hour and Shadow Point which along with some short stories and a comic book form the Gothic War series. Widely held as some of the best ‘naval’ books set in the 40k universe, they’re well worth checking out.
And what about going beyond 40k?
You mean the Horus Heresy series, and maybe The Beast Arises? They’re both great, for sure, but they’re maybe not the best places to start your reading off. The Heresy has been a vital part of the 40k history for almost as long as 40k has been a thing, but it’s only in the last decade or so that Black Library have started documenting this period of Imperial history. We’ve just hit book 39 and the series shows no signs of slowing down – you could pick up Horus Rising and get cracking from there, and it’s certainly the place to start if you do want to read this series, but I’d probably suggest making sure you’re familiar with the 40k universe before you start on this series.
As for The Beast Arises, while it’s proving to be a (perhaps surprisingly) fantastic series, it’s set between the Heresy and the 40k universe as it is ‘now’, so it definitely rewards some prior knowledge. I’d say this is a series to get stuck into if you’re pretty well up on 40k in general and are already enjoying the Heresy series.
This is all great, but…just tell me where to start!
Alright, fair enough…since you asked nicely. If you’ve got this far (well done, and thank you!) and still can’t make your mind up…just go buy Xenos by Dan Abnett, or actually just buy the whole Eisenhorn trilogy – it’s totally worth it!
So there you have it, my (unintentionally lengthy) recommendations for how to get started with Black Library’s 40k novels. Actually, just one more thing – keep an eye on the Legends of the Dark Millennium series. This is a relatively new series, mostly anthologies but including novels now as well, with each book dedicated to a particular faction. If you’re a big fan of one faction, you might find that there’s a book in this series dedicated to your favourite army.
Anyway, this is all very much my personal opinion. If you’re read this and you think I’ve missed something obvious out, or if you’ve got any awesome suggestions for books to begin a 40k odyssey with, make sure to let me know!