Warhammer 40,000 isn’t just a spectacular tabletop miniatures game. If you’ve ever bought a rule book for the game or read a White Dwarf Magazine, you’ve probably also noticed that there’s a very, very big and complicated fictional universe for all of your tabletop adventures to fit into.
In fact, you could say the Warhammer 40,000 universe walks on three, equally important, terrifying bionic legs:
- The first leg is the rules: all the systems and mechanics that make up the Warhammer 40,000 tabletop wargame (and its small-scale siblings, Necromunda and Kill Team). These can be found in rulebooks, apps and online resources, and they’re updated at regular intervals to keep the game balanced and interesting.
- The second leg is the miniatures: buying, assembling and painting them to have something to represent your army in the game. You can buy plastic miniature kits from Games Workshop or from various third-party manufacturers, and with enough glue and creativity, you can turn a pile of plastic bits into a highly personalized collection with its own quirks and color schemes. To many players of the game, this part of the hobby is just as important as the rules themselves.
- The third and final leg of the great Warhammer 40,000 monstrosity is the fictional universe, which is what we’ll focus on in this article: The background story or “lore” of the Warhammer 40,000 universe has been developing since the late 80s, not just through the snippets of story included in the rulebooks for the game, but also through piles and piles of novels and short story anthologies published on Games Workshop’s own publishing label, Black Library.
Black Library books tell stories set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, ranging from grand soap opera epics of Space Marine primarchs and court intrigue to gritty tales of war from every faction in the tabletop game and even crime fiction from the darkes corners of the Imperium of Man. Since 40k fiction is published (exclusively) by the same company that is in charge of the two other legs of the Warhammer 40,000 hobby, you can be pretty sure that if there’s a miniature kit or a faction in the game you like, there’s probably also a piece of Black Library featuring it somewhere.
This can often mean that Black Library books feel like tie-in novels that exist mainly to sell you more miniatures, and if you just pick up a random 40k novel, you’ll quickly notice that the stories told in them are under pretty tight editorial restrictions to make sure everything makes sense in relation to how the gaming side of the hobby develops. Many of the Black Library books are also part of long series(beware of the Horus Heresy novels in particular!), meaning that picking up a random book can be pretty confusing.
If, however, you manage to find one of the really good Black Library books, you’re in for a treat: there’s nothing quite like the Warhammer 40,000 fictional universe because it has had so much time to develop and grow, so in the hands of the right writer, it can make for amazingly fun and thought-provoking science fiction.
In this article, we’ve collected some of the best books to begin with if you want to get into the best parts of the Warhammer 40,000 fictional universe. With one notable exception (because it’s just a really good book – more on that later), these books are also up to date with the current developments in the 40k universe, so they’ll fit nicely with the lore you find in current rulebooks for the game. Finally, the books recommended below also have another thing in common: Their audiobook versions are amazing. Black Library generally release their audiobooks in a somewhat dramatized style, and they consistently hire voice actors who are good at capturing the diversity and madness of the 40k universe with tons of different voices and accents, so if you’re new to 40k fiction, audiobooks is one of the best ways to get started.
Dawn of Fire: Avenging Son by Guy Haley
TL;DR: If you want to know what’s currently going on in the 40K main narrative, this entertaining and well-told epic by Guy Haley is the place to start, even though it’s not the most original work on this list.
Guy Haley is one of the big guns in the current generation of Black Library writers, but that’s not why we’ve chosen to start with his Avenging Son book in this list: Rather, it’s because the Dawn of Fire series, of which Avenging Son is the first, is the closest you’ll get to an official “main storyline” for the Warhammer 40,000 universe at the moment.
This is pretty important, since the Warhammer 40,000 universe is usually seen as notoriously stagnant: The Space Marines might win or lose a planet here and there, but the overall balance between the factions in the universe (and in the game) has been pretty constant, which makes sense for a game where every army has to be at least somewhat likely to win a fight on the tabletop. With the release of the game’s 8th edition a couple of years ago, all of this changed: The Imperium of Man, the great protagonist (but in no way the good guys!) of 40k lore, was split in two by a great rift in the galaxy, out of which swarms of daemons and Chaos worshippers poured; Imperial citizens from all walks of life started gaining psychic powers, and one of the Primarchs, the Ultramarine leader Roboute Guilliman (if this is your first read on 40k fiction – hi! Get used to silly names in a dark and serious fictional setting), was resurrected from stasis to become the de facto emperor with a vision to introduce new technology and, well, common sense, into the superstitious and oppressive Imperial war machine.
There’s a lot to keep track of, but all of these changes has infused 40K fiction with a rush of new creative energy. Avenging Son takes all of that and turns it into an engaging, relatable and well-told epic of the struggle to save Humanity, and that’s no small feat.
The novel follows a vast gallery of characters around the resurrected Primarch, as he reveals his plans for reforming the Imperium. Meanwhile, all sorts of horrors are encroaching upon the Imperium, and Guilliman leads the Indomitus Crusade to take back everything the Imperium has lost.
Guy Haley isn’t one of my favorite Black Library authors, and there’s definitely parts of Avenging Son that’s a showcase of everything that’s not so great about Black Library, such as drawn-out battle sequences that would be much more fun to play with miniatures and dice than read in passages bogged down by technical language and the need to constantly mentions all sorts of little things to remind you that you’re reading something taking place in a copyrighted IP – but I don’t think that’s Haley’s fault. It’s just something that will always be there in the main tie-in for a new edition of the game, which this book is: It followed the release of the game’s 9th edition.
When Haley isn’t writing stuff like that, he can be really good. I had read his tie-in to 8th edition, Dark Imperium, a couple of years ago, and since that was full of those stuffy battle sequences I mentioned above, I was understandably worried about Avenging Son, but there’s just so much more to this book than that. This is especially true in the case of the character Fabian Guelphrain, who is a clerk in the Imperial bureaucracy with a tendency to speak his mind – a trait that can get you in a lot of trouble in an authoritarian theocracy like the Imperium. In Avenging Son, he is recruited by the superhuman Primarch Guilliman as a Historitor: someone who is tasked with writing the history of the Imperium from a perspective of critical reason, which is something that would have been unthinkable in earlier 40k fiction. Through Fabian’s eyes, Haley gains the freedom to look at the 40k universe in a new way, as he lets him follow Guilliman’s reveal of his great project (the new, bigger Primaris Space Marines) and his reforms of the theocratic bureaucracy Mankind is bogged down by.
This might sound like a very boring premise for a science fiction book (a clerk writing a chronicle), but it allows Haley to focus on the fact that, to a modern, thinking human being, the Imperium of Man is clearly very, very bad and horrible: It’s a militaristic, religiously fanatic, oppressive system that’s built around feeding everything into a galaxy-crushing military-industrial complex built mostly on human labour. It’s not great. But that is easy to miss if you’re reading a novel centered around Space Marines, since their posthuman super-soldiers built to be eternally loyal to that same regime, and consequently, the fact that the 40k universe is satire/a cautionary tale is often lost on readers of Black Library’s other titles for beginners.
It’s this combination of being the “main story” of the game and the interesting alternative points of view that makes me recommend Avenging Son as the first thing you should read if you’re interested in playing a 40k army loyal to the Imperium (so Space Marines, Astra Militarum and the like), or if you want to get an idea of where the storyline of the franchise is currently at. In the second book in the series, Andy Clark takes over as writer, but he does a good job of picking up on some of the best story seeds Haley planted in the first one. The Dawn of Fire series is generally just a lot better than I expected!
The Twice-Dead King: Ruin & The Twice-Dead King: Reign by Nate Crowley
TL;DR: Nate Crowley does an amazing job of making the Necrons relatable and engaging, as the series follow an outcast Prince trying to change his fate without losing his mind in the process. Can be read with no prior knowledge of the Warhammer 40,000 universe. Series consists of two books, Ruin and Reign.
Nate Crowley is an absolute gift to 40k readers who don’t just like 40k but also really well-written and creative fiction, so he gets two entries on this list. The first entry here is for the Twice-Dead King series, which takes us far away from the human Imperium to see the galaxy from a completely different perspective: That of a decaying Necron Lord in exile on a backwater planet at the far end of the galaxy.
Oltyx, as the protagonist is called, is a Necron, which means he’s part of a species that transferred their minds to mechanical bodies ages ago, and who have been in a grave-like stasis on their Tomb Worlds for millenia, only to rise again as a space version of an undead empire. They’re the main antagonists of early 9th edition 40K, meaning they’re part of all the starter sets you can buy, so it’s no wonder Black Library chose to release a series starring them.
However Twice-Dead King doesn’t read anything like a corporate cash-in on a recent release. Instead, it’s a surprisingly deep and thoughtful saga about memory, legacy and how to keep your mind in one piece while you feel like you’re losing your grip on reality.
I almost can’t say anything about Ruin without spoiling one or more of the amazing twists and turns in its plot, but basically, Oltyx is in exile because he betrayed (or didn’t betray?…) his royal family, and because he is more or less an AI version of his old mortal self uploaded into an advanced computer brain, he is able to revisit his memories in vivid details, so that the story jumps back and forth between his chaotic present and his troubled past. On top of this, Oltyx has partioned his mind into several subminds, so that his inner monologue is constantly interrupted by his hilariously insufferable alternate selves who each have their own agenda. One submind only cares about Necron royal etiquette, one is a huge xenobiology nerd, one is a psychotic fighting machine without any real language, and so on.
This sounds like a narrator setup that shouldn’t work at all, but it does, because Crowley consistently balances an unerring talent for making complicated sci-fi technology interesting with a wonderful, playful sense of humor. It seems Crowley is one of those writers who fall in love with all of his characters, and everyone from the protagonist down to his lowliest lieutenants have distinct personalities with strengths and flaws so you can’t help but root for them, even though they’re trying to rid the galaxy of anything with a pulse.
Through a series of coincidences and revelations in the early chapters of Ruin, Oltyx realises that his unique position as a Necron outsider might be exactly what’s needed to save his civilization, but that it will require him to face his past and change his fate, and as the stakes grow ever higher as the series progresses, he constantly has to innovate and seek unlikely allies, which fits very well with the general theme of progress and change that’s characteristic of the main 40K storyline at the moment, and you’ll quickly get drawn into his quest to save his dynasty – or remake it.
There is a lot of dialogue/monologue in Ruin (and, to a slightly lesser extent, its successor Reign), but there’s also a lot of combat and warfare, which also works great, since the battles lets the reader see how Necrons view Orks, humans and other races of the 40K universe. Crowley writes these battle sequences very differently from other Black Library authors I’ve read, and while it might be a bit too detailed and technical for some readers, I think any fan of, say, Dune would find it enjoyable.
Twice-Dead King is definitely epic science fiction just like all the other 40K books, but by choosing the perspective of a Necron Lord at the far edge of the galaxy, Crowley doesn’t have to refer to the Indomitus Crusade or the main story of 40K all the time, which arguably makes this a good starter book for someone who just likes sci-fi and is curious about how that works in a 40K setting. If you’re used to reading science fiction, you would have no problem reading the Twice-Dead King series with no prior knowledge of Warhammer 40,000, and that’s something you really can’t say of most Black Library books.
Day of Ascension by Adrian Tchaikovsky
TL;DR: Renowned sci-fi author Adrian Tchaikovsky tackles the 40K universe in a thrilling political sci-fi story of cyborg vs. mutant class warfare. Great for sci-fi fans with no knowledge of 40K, but the themes of the story are still core 40K stuff.
One of the central themes of the Warhammer 40,000 fictional universe is the limits of being human. This is, of course, visible in the conflicts between the Imperium and xenos species such as the Aeldari, the Orks or the Necrons, but it’s also a theme that’s explored in a million ways within the Imperium itself: Psykers, humans who have evolved with psychic powers, are relentlessly persecuted and controlled. Human beings with mutants are often the victims of purges and pogroms, and any contact with aliens within the Imperium is strictly forbidden. In general, the Imperium praises the purity and superiority of humanity, especially as an alternative to robots and artificial intelligence, which is a total taboo within the borders of the human-controlled galaxy.
At the same time, the Imperium is completely dependent on breaking the boundaries of what it means to be human: the Space Marines are genetically enhanced posthumans that acquire immense power while essentially losing their humanity (ordinary humans often have involuntary responses of horror, dread and even some level of repulsion when interacting with them in 40K fiction). Psykers are employed in combat and navigation (and the Emperor himself was a powerful psyker), and menial as well as computational tasks are carried out by deformed and augmented cyborgs such as the servitors the Imperium uses instead of robots.
In short, being human is a bit of a paradox in Warhammer 40,000, something that is at once contained and expanded all the time. In (renowned sci-fi author) Adrian Tchaikovsky’s, this paradox is put to use excellently in a story oppression, rebellion and class warfare. The novel takes place on the planet, a so-called Forge World where the cyborgized priesthood of the Adeptus Mechanicus enlist the human population to work in their industry and serve as augmented soldiers in their armies. The Adeptus Mechanicus are like an Imperium within the Imperium – they pay homage to the Emperor, but they’re also on a constant quest to transcend the limitations of the human body by replacing organs and body parts with technological prostheses and augmentations.
On Morod, there’s also another faction trying to transcend the human form, but through almost opposite means: One of the protagonists of the novel, Davien, lives in a desolate working-class neighborhood that’s being led by a council of elders who believe in a prophecy about the Emperor’s Angels coming to save them from bondage and oppression. They are, of course, followers of the Genestealer Cults, an infestation of the alien Tyranids who infiltrate human societies to prepare them for invasion, but to Davien and her community, the Cults are a family that provide hope and an alternative to the oppression of the Adeptus Mechanicus, and the physical mutations that manifest in her family members are seen as gifts from the angels. So, the Adeptus Mechanicus are seeking liberation from the human condition through technology, and the Cults are seeking it through mutation and erasing the boundary between species.
It’s one hell of a setup for a political science fiction novel about the injustices of Imperial society, and the fact that the most relatable, underdog faction in the novel are also clearly heralds of a catastrophic invasion makes for plenty of complex moral discussions throughout the story. Like Crowley’s Twice-Dead King series, Day of Ascension doesn’t really require any prior understanding of the Warhammer 40,000 universe of the reader, and I hope it’ll gain a readership outside of the Warhammer fandom.
While Tchaikovsky is excellent at writing characters with motivations that a non-40K fan would be able to relate to, he doesn’t shy away from all the grimdark, horrific grotesquerie of the Warhammer 40,000 universe, and any fan of the Adeptus Mechanicus and/or the Genestealer Cults will enjoy how he juxtaposes the inhuman traits of both factions – and perhaps especially the awesome way in which the conflict between the two play out in the end, which is something I like to think of as official canon from now on (you’ll have to read it to find out what that means).
One thing to beware of if you’re already a Black Library fan: There’s decidedly less battle action sequences in this book than in many other 40K books, even though there are still a couple of good ones in it. It’s main characters aren’t really soldiers or battle commanders, and that’s great if you want to read nerdy science fiction, but could be frustrating if you normally read 40K books like they were pulp war “dirty dozen” novels (which can also be fun to read!).
Eisenhorn: Xenos by Dan Abnett
TL;DR: Old-school hard-boiled detective sci-fi noir by one of the greats in Black Library Fiction. If you like The Witcher, you’ll probably love this.
Dan Abnett is an institution at Black Library: Almost everything he has written for the label has been a success, and with good reason. He’s one of the few authors who has a style that just completely encapsulates what grimdark Warhammer 40,000 means, which is probably why his Eisenhorn series is the one that has been picked up as a television series.
Xenos, which is the first novel in a series, is told by the Imperial Inquisitor Gregor Eisenhorn, whose job is to track down heretics in the Imperium by almost any means neccessary. The novel begins with a confrontation with the leader of a Chaos cult, but it quickly turns out that the infiltration of Imperial society goes much deeper than that.
Xenos is the only novel on this list that isn’t up to date with the current 40K storyline – it was released in 2001 in a time where the franchise was very different from what it is today. In some ways, it hasn’t aged particularly well: At the beginning of the story, I found Eisenhorn as a narrator endlessly annoying. He presents himself as a cross-breed between a hard-boiled noir detective and one of those supermen who were always the protagonists of video games in those years. He’s Batman at his most obnoxious, more or less: Cruel, self-professedly hyper-intelligent, violent and handsome. It’s a bit awkward, and there are a few sexist remarks and the like along the way.
Fortunately, while there are definitely elements of a classic power fantasy in Eisenhorn’s telling of his own story as a bad-ass space detective, that’s not all there is to Xenos. Abnett conjures the 40K universe on the page as if it’s something he came up with on his own, and chapter by chapter, I couldn’t help but feel the strange planets and societies come alive around Eisenhorn and his group of followers. The last third of the novel is downright amazing, as everything comes together like a combination of a great crime novel and a war movie.
It also helps that Eisenhorn’s power and purity is compromised in various ways as the story progresses, and while I was very sceptical at the beginning, as I felt I was reading everything I didn’t like about 40K (the problematic politics, the hero worship and xenophobia, etc.), at the end I found myself looking forward to the next book. In short: Xenos might be a relic of a bygone age in 40K, but Dan Abnett can write.
Ghazghkull Thraka: Prophet of the Waaagh! by Nate Crowley
TL;DR: Insane but impressive metanarrative story of the leader of the Orks, with plenty of twists and turns carried by an unforgettable, unreliable narrator. Funny and thrilling.
This is the second entry for a book by Nate Crowley on this list, but since it’s such a fundamentally different read, it deserves its spot. Prophet of the Waaagh! is a classic example of two classis literary tropes – the frame narrative and the unreliable narrator – applied to the unlikeliest of subjects: The history of Ghazghkull Mag-Uruk Thraka, the leader of Warhammer 40,000’s least serious-looking faction, the green, battle-happy, dialect-speaking Orks.
The frame of the story is an interrogation on an Imperial ship, where Inquisitor Falx, the Deathwatch Space Marine psyker Hendricksson and an Ogryn psyker (this is set during the Psychic Awakening, after all), try to coerce some useful information about the Ork leader out of his herald/mascot/advisor Makari, a gretchin (small, goblinoid ork) handed over to them by a band of Ork marauders. If that wasn’t enough of a frame, most of the interrogation proceeds through an eloquent Ork interpreter called Biter, who may or may not relay what either party is actually saying to the other. It’s a couple of meta-layers, to be sure, but it also makes it possible for Crowley to avoid writing in Ork dialect all the way through the novel, which would have been far too much.
The novel switches between tense, complex interrogation scenes with Falx as the focal point of the narrator, and Makari’s wild biography of his beloved leader, told in the chaotic, over-the-top style of 40K orks. The biography itself is full of tall tales and inconsistencies, which, without spoiling too much, is exactly the point, but it also remains both funny and engaging throughout the book. Everything in Makari’s story is seen from his perspective as a tiny gretchin in a sea of insane, battle-hungry, often very stupid orks, which adds to the comedy of it all, but since gretchin are also more intelligent than orks, it allows for some reflection and analysis as we follow Ghazghkull’s rise to power from a street brawl to the apocalyptic war against the Imperium on the planet Armageddon.
The wonderful thing about Prophet of the Waaagh! is that it could so easily have been the dumbest, most boring Black Library book imaginable, recounting brawl after brawl and getting lost in how strong and stupid the leader of the Orks is, but Crowley manages to bring a lot more depth and suspense to the story – without compromising on the satiric and silly elements of Ork mythology in any way.
The book is probably the one on this list that’s the least recommendable for readers who know nothing about 40K (there’s a lot of extremely silly terminology in there that could be hard to swallow), but then again, it’s the also the book on this list that takes the grimdark aspect of 40K the least seriously, so if you feel curious about 40K but a bit uncomfortable with all the macho power fantasy evil empire part of the franchise, this is the book for you.
Finally, Prophet of the Waaagh! deserves a mention for being hands-down the best audiobook version on this list. Kelly Hotten reads the interrogation passages, switching between the voices of an icy Imperial Inquisitor, a sleek Ork interpreter, a female Ogryn, a Space Wolf Deathwatch psyker speaking with some sort of half-Scandivanian accent, and a few more, and I don’t know how she does it. Those passages feel almost like a radio play at times. Paul Putner gives it everything he’s got in an excited, chaotic ork-cockney dialect as the narrator of Makari’s tale, taking care of both the shrill voice of Makari and the booming rockslide voice of Ghazghkull, and Jon Rand does a short interlude for something I won’t spoil here, but it’s awesome.
Like Crowley’s other Black Library works, Prophet of the Waaagh! manages to mix serious themes and serious literary craftmanship into the mad brew of gore and confetti that’s the 40k universe, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.