If you’re one of the 5+ million fans who discovered the Astartes series during the quarantine, welcome! I’ve seen dozen of posts and had a few conversations with such people. You’ve watched the amazing videos, you may or may not have followed the YouTube account drama, and now you want to get into WH40k. But where do you start? That’s a really good question and one I’m happy to answer!
The world of WH40k is currently changing in dramatic ways. You can’t really get a good idea of it from Astartes because his well-crafted story is not clearly placed. It’s hard to dive into the world right now without risking confusion. Which is why the best gateway drug to WH40k remains The Uriel Ventris Chronicles. Volume 1 of this series (formerly known as The Ultramarines Omnibus) remains the best zero-entry into the world.
If you liked the general badassery of the titular Astartes, Uriel Ventris will more than sate you. Big, strong space marines killing various foes of the Imperium. The series walks you through several types of bad guys in an easy-to-understand manner. Graham McNeill introduces concepts and rules of the world in such a way that while you might need to Wiki a bit, you won’t be completely confused. If you love Volume 1, there’s a Volume 2 to follow up!
2. The Iron Snakes
After you’ve chewed your way through that, might I recommend Brothers of the Snake? Parts 4 and 5 of the YouTube series start to introduce a little more by way of intrigue. Something fishy is going on over there, and Dan Abnett’s Brothers of the Snake is a great blend of Space Marine action and mystery. There’s some scheming afoot with all kinds of bad consequences.
Brothers of the Snake is a unique book within the Black Library catalog because of the narrative structure. The overarching narrative tells the story of a single brother within the Iron Snakes. But each chapter bounces around time to show a different, pivotal moment in his life. It all leads back to a mystery that is presented in the first story. Spiritually it reminds me most of Astartes.
If you’ve had your fill of shooter mans, might I suggest diving into the Vaults of Terra series by Chris Wraight? This is a semi-hot take amongst my standard recommendations, but bear with me. Wraight’s Inquisitor Crowl might be the best way to meet the politics of the Imperium, after viewing Astartes.
Those big burly space marines are super cool right? It makes you think that maybe the Imperium is a futuristic wonder to marvel Star Trek, right? The Carrion Throne will thoroughly disabuse you of all notions of this. Wraight’s descriptions of life on Terra, as well as the conniving politics at play will leave you with a lot of questions. But it will also thoroughly hook you into the world of non-Astartes characters. After you read The Carrion Throne, proceed directly to Hollow Mountain, and chase it with the Watchers of the Throne series. I know it seems like a cheat to require you to read 4 books to proceed to #4, but trust me.
4. Lord Guilliman His Self
Now that you have a wonderful grasp on the loyalist marines, the traitor marines, and the Inquisition, it’s time to meet the man. Dive headfirst into the world of the 42nd millennium with Dark Imperium, which features Roboute Guilliman fighting off the followers of Nurgle. This book is a chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter moment with not one but TWO primarchs. You get to see the world from both the Ultramarines’ and the Death Guard’s point of view.
Not to mention, these books will further drive home the point about what a sorry and terrible state the Imperium is in. This two-book (thus far) series will probably send you to Wiki the most out of this list. But welcome to part of the fun of diving into WH40k: figuring out what the heck a Cadia is, and why is a hydra important? Also, Guy Haley is about to launch another Guilliman-centric series, Dawn of Fire, so get in now before your summer reading list grows!
5. Belisarius Cawl
It is impossible to understand how very important it is to read most of the above books before diving into this one. But once you get there, strap yourself in. Depending on my mood, Belisarius Cawl: The Great Work might be Haley’s finest work to date.This book is not only outstandingly crafted, it’s a delicious tie-in to the above books. Not to mention it’ll introduce you to the Nutty Professor of the Mechanicus. This book, like the mall in The Blues Brothers, has everything. To say too much is to spoil an artfully crafted narrative, but suffice to say, the above books will prepare you in ways you didn’t imagine.
Not to mention it co-stars Felix, from the Dark Imperium books, and he is a treasure. Plus, like so many other books in this list, this book will be hugely important going forward. But most importantly it’s fun. You will laugh, gasp, and maybe have to visit a few wiki pages to ask “WHAT. JUST. HAPPENED.” And that’s amazing.