Many years ago I posted a beginners guide to WH40k on Forbes. Over the years, several books have either been combined into omnibuses or are out of print. So, for our WH40k Book Club I present the new list, updated for 2019.
If I had to pick the most robust, rich, and all around versatile science-fiction universe, it would be Warhammer 40,000 by a country mile. It has a deep, complex lore that is well-seeded in more than twenty years of rulebooks and codexes, all of which is wonderfully explored in various novels from Black Library. The question I receive most often from those unfamiliar is, “Where do I start?”
Picking up a book randomly from <insert favorite book purchasing option> can be daunting. Some books are of questionable quality, and can turn you off, while others are the equivalent of B-sides; they’re for hardcore fans who know what they’re getting into. Fortunately, you have me as a guide on your walkabout, kind of like Dingo in that one Gargoyles episode.
Here it is, the order in which I recommend experiencing the world of Warhammer 40,000, so that you don’t spend too much time saying “Who? What? Why?”
First Steps: Understanding the World Pre-Rift
In the wake of the 13th Black Crusade, the world of WH40k is changing dramatically. Before jumping into anything post-rift, it’s important to grasp the pre-rift world. This is how I suggest doing that.
The Uriel Ventris Chronicles: Volume 1 – Graham McNeill
Faction: Ultramarines Legion
What it’s about: The book formerly known as The Ultramarines Omnibus, The Uriel Ventris Chronicles contains three books which follow the adventures of the titular captain of the 4th company of the Ultramarines. Ventris’ exploits take him across three very different campaigns, featuring three very different foes from the grim dark future.
Why you should read it: These stories provide one of the best introductions and primers for the concept and basis of the Space Marines which can be a foreign concept to newcomers of the universe. Also similar to Eisenhorn (coming up next), The Chronicles of Uriel Ventris provides a really great primer into three of the different dangers from the future, including the traitor legions.
Additional reading: If you find yourself in love with the Space Marines (how could you not be?), Dan Abnett’s Brothers of the Snake is a wonderful next step. It’s a shorter book and while the characters and story are great, it’s not as much of an introduction as is the Ultramarines book.
The Eisenhorn Trilogy – Dan Abnett
Faction: Imperial Inquisition
What it’s about: An Inquisitor named Gregor Eisenhorn and his kill team. The trilogy, if you can get your hands on it, includes stories which span xenos, heretic and daemon enemies and full of political intrigue and good old fashioned action.
Why you should read it: This is, without question, the finest introduction to the political and ideological aspects to the world. Not only is this one of the best collections in the entire Black Library catalog, the stories are compelling and intriguing and the characters will resonate with you for years.
Additional Reading: Need more Inquisition? Of course you do. Abnett’s Ravenor Omnibus follows the story of Gideon Ravenor who appears in the second Eisenhorn book. Numerous other characters return and the story is equally full of WH40k politics.
Ciaphas Cain: Hero of the Imperium – Sandy Mitchel
Faction: Imperial Guard
What it’s about: This series of books and stories follow the exploits and misadventures of an Imperial Guard Commissar named Ciaphas Cain, who would rather be anywhere than in battle.
Why you should read it: It’s funny as hell. Sure, it tells an interesting, compelling story with complex characters, but most importantly it’s clever and funny, which is rather rare in the WH40k universe. Plus, it introduced me to my favorite phrase ever, “ploin-shaped,” and taught me the dangers of rogue traders.
Additional Reading: Sadly, there really isn’t anything like Ciaphas Cain. Oh, sure, there are plenty of additional Imperial Guard stories, even several that focus on commissars. But Ciaphas Cain stands alone because of its humor and inability to take itself (or Cain) seriously. (Can you tell I love, love, love this series?)
Night Lords Omnibus – Aaron Dembski-Bowden
Faction: Chaos Marines! Specifically, Night Lords
What it’s about: The Night Lords Omnibus follows the grim exploits of the Night Lords’ First Claw, led by Talos, who shares Konrad Curze’s gift/curse of prophecy.
Why you should read it: Rare is the book which follows a Chaos Space Marine’s tale. There are plenty of short stories and Horus Heresy books (see below), but stories which seek to paint a flattering picture of the traitor legions are practically non-existent. The story is brilliant for its ability to make you feel invested in someone as evil as Talos and his band (especially Xarl), and Dembski-Bowden knows his way around space combat. The Omnibus contains the three novels plus some short stories.
Additional reading: As mentioned, Chaos stories are pretty rare. But if you find yourself digging the traitor legions, Graham McNeill’s Iron Warriors Omnibus is an excellent next step. Afterward, I recommend ADB’s Talons of Horus.
Stepping into the Post-Rift Days
As the old adage says, if at first you don’t succeed, try twelve more times because the 13th time is a charm. Cadia has fallen, my friends, and as Keri and I learned the hard way, there is an order in which to read these books.
Cadia Stands – Justin D. Hill
Faction: Imperial Guard Astra Militarum
What it’s about: Read about the attack on and subsequent fall of Cadia from the brave men and women who have stood guard at the doorstep of the Eye of Terror.
Why you should read it: While not the strongest book on this list, it’s a fascinating glimpse at how badass the Cadian soldiers are, and what a horrible nightmare Abaddon has unleashed upon the universe.
Additional Reading: Cadia Stands is book 1 in the Cadia series which is undoubtedly going to cover more of the survivors’ stories. For additional reading immediately, try Celestine by Andy Clark which features Saint Celestine and some hardcore Cadians.
Watchers of the Throne: The Emperor’s Legion – by Chris Wraight
What it’s about: Told before, during, and after the fall of Cadia, Watchers of the Throne follows three very different people as they make sense of what has happened.
Why you should read it: First off, this book is just good. The story moves quickly, the characters are great, and it’s just a fun book to read. But most importantly the events of this book are referenced several other places, and pretty damn important to the current timeline.
Dark Imperium – Guy Haley
Faction: Ultramarines … NOW WITH A PRIMARCH!
What it’s about: Roboute Guilliman is back with some new and improved space marines, and Mortarion is there to welcome him back.
Why you should read it: This book really lays the foundation for the brave new world the Imperium finds itself in. The Primaris are in action, Guilliman is adjusting, and the plot is moving forward. Get to know the Death Guard and Ultrmarines better than before.
Additional reading: The sequel, Plague War is even better than the first, and has a most epic encounter. Trust me, you’re going to want to read it.
Apocalypse – Josh Reynolds
Faction: Word Bearers, Ecclisiarchy
What it’s about: The Word Bearers are searching for something on an Ecclisiarchy-run planet. Two religious factions come head to head, and it goes about as well as you’d expect.
Why you should read it: Outside of Watchers of the Throne, this is one of the most important lore books you’ll read in the new Imperium. Secrets are revealed, Primaris and OG marines interact, and a mic is dropped in the most epic manor. Read it, you won’t regret it.
A note about the Horus Heresy
I highly recommend reading the above list before diving into the Heresy novels. Once you’re reading to go forth with that, we have a Beginner’s Guide to the Horus Heresy to continue this journey of discovery.
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