The Warhammer 40,000 universe is absolutely massive. Seriously, there are over 300 books set in this uber-popular grimdark table top miniature wargame. With the recent announcement of a Cinematic Universe being created as a collaboration between Henry Cavill (Oh God Emperor of the Nerds that he is) and a small production company called Amazon, plus the general increase in hobbying over the past few years, it’s never been so popular.
My own journey with Warhammer (specifically 40K) started in May 2021 when, during lockdown, a local independent gaming shop reopened. I purchased a small starter kit which contained some paints, minis and a thick booklet giving me just enough lore & background to this incredibly vivid, deep and enriching universe to really hook me. Although I couldn’t play a game for months, I had plenty of lore & literature to engross me into this dark, brutal & exciting world.
But you’ve not come here to listen to me wax lyrical about 40K and why I’ve fallen so hard in love with it. You want some book recommendations to start your journey into the grimdark future of the 41st Millennium! A few quick things first: there are multiple series & subseries (as you’ll see shortly) contained within this universe, along with standalones and shorts, audio dramas and more. Frankly, if you like the sound of any of them, just jump right in! 40K books are written to be accessible to anyone, veterans of the Imperium and newcomers alike, so it’s not as daunting as you might think. Another thing, the publisher for all Warhammer books is Black Library, and in recent years they have moved away from physical print (typically they’ll print around a couple thousand paperback copies of any new release) and have moved more towards digital ebooks & audiobooks (of which are very good quality by the way). I have tried to include books that are easily available in paperback formats simply because I’m a physical reader myself. So, without further ado and in no particular order, be sure to check out all of these books and I hope you enjoy!
Eisenhorn series by Dan Abnett
Probably my personal favourite works in the 40K universe (so far), the Eisenhorn series follows Inquisitor Gregor Eisenhorn as he and his team investigate heresy and chase mysterious chaotic powers across the galaxy. A series of action-packed and twist-filled detective novels, Eisenhorn has incredible character work & prose courtesy of New York Times bestselling writer and one of the most celebrated Black Library authors out there, Dan Abnett (who will appear on this list a few more times I’m sure). What makes this a great place to start is that it follows a human band of characters (albeit slightly modified with cybernetics or mystical Warp wielding powers) as opposed to the demigod-like stotic knights of the Space Marines; and it’s a relatively self-contained sequence of books, something that doesn’t require previous knowledge of the lore to understand. Plus, it is one of the most popular Black Library series with traction even outside of the 40K sphere. I believe that this is the series that would first be adapted in God Emperor Cavill’s upcoming TV universe.
Gaunt’s Ghosts by Dan Abnett
One of the most popular subseries in the 40K universe, Gaunt’s Ghosts follows the Imperial Guard regiment of the Tanith First during the Sabbat Worlds crusade. A series inspired by Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe books, it consists of over 15 novels (and counting) plus multiple short stories and side novellas. This boots on the ground military epic perfectly encapsulates the brutality of constant war (for those of you that don’t know, the Imperium of Man in the 41st Millennium is pretty much always fighting someone or something) whilst showing the heroic adventures of its ensemble cast. The first omnibus, The Founding, collects a number of short stories and the first three novels in the series.
Side note: Dale loves this one with a burning passion!
Ciaphas Cain series by Sandy Mitchell
It’s not all doom, gloom, chaos & destruction in Warhammer 40,000 though (well, it sort of is!). The Ciaphas Cain books follows the titular Imperial Commissar as he recounts, in what some people would say is possibly with too much honesty, his battles both on the battlefield & in the political courtrooms of the Imperium, along with his life & adventures. Although Ciaphas Cain is a decorated war hero, how he has become such an awarded hero may actually not be so brave or heroic after all. This series injects some much needed comedic value into this universe which, what with all the death, can sometimes feel a bit grim.
Soul Drinkers series by Ben Counter
The first of many Space Marine recommendations (let’s face it, Space Marines are HUUUUGGGEEEE in 40K), The Soul Drinkers series follows the eponymous Chapter as they search endlessly for an artefact they are honour-bound to retrieve, even if this puts them into conflict with the very people they are sworn to protect. A series that questions authority and chronicles how conflicting desires can have adverse effects, The Soul Drinkers is perfect for those looking for something that tests their own moral boundaries. Plus, Space Marines books are all about blowing shit up, so expect plenty of action!
Night Lords series by Aaron Dembski-Bowden
The only Chaos-related recommendation on this list (think of “Chaos” as the ultimate evil in this universe), we follow, again, the titular Space Marine Chapter, this time a Traitor Legion, known as the Night Lords and their eternal quest for revenge. Often in 40K books we follow the “good guys” and the villains can sometimes be a bit “moustache twirly”. Dembski-Bowden (another Black Library darling) brings us this character study from the point of view of the bad guys, and turns them from Saturday morning cartoon baddies to nuanced and multifaceted beings whose intentions and goals, whilst dark and undoubtedly evil, may find you believing that they are somewhat justified.
Space Wolves series by William King
Perfect for fans of God of War, John Gwynne’s Bloodsworn Saga, or any of the truly amazing Norse inspired works that have come out in recent years, the Space Wolves are another Space Marine Chapter (there’s loads of Space Marine factions, just go with it) who take inspiration from Vikings and Nordic lore. This series is focused on Ragnar Blackmane, the youngest ever Wolf Lord, as he sets out to prove himself in battle, brotherhood, and the long halls of Fenris. An adrenaline ride of brutal space-Viking action!
The Uriel Ventris Chronicles by Graham McNeil
Also known as the Ultramarines series, Graham McNeill’s Uriel Ventris Chronicles, uh, chronicles the ups & downs of newly promoted Ultramarines captain Uriel Ventris (surprise surprise!). You may recognise the Ultramarines as the poster boys for Warhammer 40,000, the big hulking blue Space Marines you see wielding massive Bolter rifles and chainswords as they chop down xenos creatures and horrors from the Warp. One of the largest (and most memed) factions, the Ultramarines are the pillar of pride, bravery, heroism & strength in the Imperium of Mankind. Expect lots of good vs evil battles, high stakes and, of course, lots of kicking space bugs in their many eyes!
The Horus Heresy (various authors)
You may have already heard of this, quite frankly, absurdly massive series. Consisting of 54 main novels, 8 sequel novels (two of which haven’t released yet), plus side books, audio dramas, short stories & novellas, The Horus Heresy is huge, sprawling, detailed, rewarding and about as close to the word EPIC as you can get. I’d also say it’s probably not the best place to start your journey. So why have I included this series on this list? Because, if you read any of the other novels above and find yourself, like me, falling in love with this horrible, horrible universe, then this series is essential reading! Plus, although the 54+ novels/collections in the main series may seem daunting, many fans suggest reading just the first 4 (each book is about 300 pages long and they absolutely clip by) and then, a bit like Discworld, just tackling any of the other books however you see fit. It has also been explicitly stated by Black Library that Horus Heresy’s sequel series, Siege of Terra, can be dived straight into without any knowledge of the preceding books. Now, as to what it’s actually about? Well, the Horus Heresy is a pretty pinnacle moment in the history of the 40K universe. Set 10,000 years before 40K, it details the civil war that essentially moulded the galaxy into what it is. It’s so much more complicated than that (in a good way), but it’s oh so thick & juicy to enjoy!
Warhammer 40,000 Core Book
And finally, a bit of a cop out answer but, what’s a better way to learn all the lore of this massive nearly 40 year old game? Grab the latest edition of the Core Book of course! It’s full of high quality artwork, images of some incredibly painted miniatures, stacked with tons of exciting lore to discover, factions & worlds to explore, stories to experience… and that’s just the first half! The second half contains all the rules, scenarios & references you need to get into the table top game itself. So it’s great if you’re interested in the setting and the game too.
Or you could just read whatever takes your fancy…
The beauty of the books in the Warhammer 40,000 universe is that you can pretty much pick up anything that takes your fancy and just go with it. They don’t hold your hand but they also aren’t needlessly complicated. After all, Games Workshop want people to get into the hobby; if everything they put out wasn’t accessible, they wouldn’t be as big as they are today. For example, you might like the look of the vicious zealot warrior nuns, the Adepta Sororitas (a personal favourite of mine); you could pick up The Book of Martyrs. If the sound of two undead alien robots trying to one up each other takes your fancy, then grab yourself a copy of The Infinite & The Divine. Crime novels set in a sprawling megacity planet with cyberpunk influences; Bloodlines has you covered. What about gigantic mecha destroying absolutely everything? Then seek out Titanicus. Or maybe you’re the type of person who relishes in chaos, torture & destruction, then pick up… well actually I’m not going to suggest anything for that, you bloody heretic! What I’m saying is this; you can go for these suggestions, or you can pick up something else entirely. Either way, you’ll have a load of fun, and you may just discover your new found obsession!
With thanks to Dale’s Fantasy Review & Tom Bookbeard for your help and suggestions on this article!
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