Columns > Published on July 20th, 2023

The Novels of Warhammer 40,000: Where to Begin?

Maybe you’ve seen a rad space marine figurine on a friend’s desk, or stumbled across one of the many books featuring the massive armored warriors on the cover, and your curiosity has been sparked. What is Warhammer 40,000? What are these giants fighting about? You want to know more, and I’m here to tell you there is a lot more to know.

Warhammer 40K is a vast science fiction setting rich with lore and full of fascinating characters struggling valiantly against impossible odds, using some of the most terrifyingly imaginative weaponry in the history of science fiction. Nothing in the Warhammer universe is ever small. Battles can frequently involve billions of combatants, starships the size of cities, and giant mechas built like walking cathedrals of war. Entire worlds are destroyed, species are exterminated, and whole interstellar civilizations are wiped from the stars. It is an insanely hostile universe, where mankind exists on the knife-edge of extinction and survival.

The Imperium of Man wages a never-ending crusade across the stars for the glory of a “god emperor” who is eternally entombed in a near-death state. They fight many terrifyingly powerful foes, like space elves, interdimensional demons, omnivorous space bugs, evil robots, space orks, and even mad gods. Although it began as a miniature wargame, the franchise has expanded through countless novels, comic books, movies, video games, and soon the rumors say, an Amazon series. It can be daunting for a newcomer to find their way through this grim dark universe. I know, because I was once there myself, and in the time since I have enjoyed the wealth of stories Warhammer 40K offers without ever becoming a “hardcore” fan. I read the novels and play some of the video games, but I’ve never fielded an army of miniatures. With that perspective in mind, the following list of novels and series is not a ranking of the best, but merely a recommendation of relatively easy entrance points to a very large and equally complicated fictional universe.

The Horus Heresy Series

If you really want to begin at the very beginning, this is the place. The Emperor of Mankind’s betrayal at the hands of Horus, his most favored son, is basically THE inciting incident for the whole story, the effects of which are still being felt thousands of years later. It split the Imperium’s army of superhuman soldiers in half, turning brother against brother. Nearly all of the primarchs, the genetically engineered demigod generals that led them, were either slain or turned by demonic influence.

This series currently includes over ninety books, but not all of them are essential reading, like the short story anthologies. The first six novels provide a fairly linear telling of Horus’ fall from grace and demonic corruption, leading up to the first major battles of the Heresy war. These early novels are also written in a style that is much more friendly to first-timers, where many of the central concepts of the Warhammer 40K universe, like Chaos and warp travel, are explained in detail. Later novels explore how each of the primarchs fell to either betrayal or the blade, the origins and development of the different space marine legions, the collateral damage caused throughout the galaxy by the Heresy, and the exploits of legendary heroes and villains on both sides. Even if you don’t read every book, this series will provide you with a solid foundation to understand whatever you choose to read next.

Get Horus Rising (Horus Heresy Book 1) at Bookshop or Amazon

The Siege of Terra Series

For those looking for a more linear experience, this is your second stop. The eponymous Siege of Terra is the climactic final conflict of the Heresy war. Horus and his traitor legions assault humanity’s homeworld, Holy Terra, and fight their way to the Imperial Palace. The three loyalist legions defending Terra are comically outnumbered, but fortunately they stand on the walls of the most fortified planet in the Imperium, and make the invaders fight for every inch, slowing Horus’ march of conquest to a crawl. The battle lasts fifty-five long days, fought by two of the greatest siegemasters in the galaxy, and is host to numerous smaller clashes all across the world. It concludes with an epic duel between the Emperor and Horus, the absent father versus the wayward son. Since it is quite possibly the most important battle in the history of the Imperium, and defines its dark future, it gets its own eight-book series, supplemented with numerous short stories and novellas.

Get The Solar War (Siege of Terra Book 1) at Bookshop or Amazon

The Ultramarines Series

The Ultramarines are one of the most powerful and popular space marine chapters. Their iconic blue armor can be seen kicking ass on frontlines across the galaxy. It is often said that the Ultramarines are the closest thing Warhammer 40K has to “good guys,” because their code of honor actually values protecting innocent lives, and they commit fewer war crimes than their brethren. While hardly paragons of virtue, they are frequently the protagonists of tie-in media like animation and video games because they are relatively easy for a newcomer to understand and identify with.

This 7-novel series follows the adventures of Ultramarine Captain Uriel Ventris as he leads his team on missions against most of the main enemy factions in the Warhammer 40K universe. For that reason, this series is a good introduction to the status quo of the setting, and a great example of what kind of stories you can expect from this world. My personal favorite is Dead Sky, Black Sun, which finds the captain attempting to survive and complete a sabotage mission on a planet completely fallen to Chaotic corruption—it feels like planning a jailbreak in Hell. If you enjoy these books, then Warhammer 40K is probably for you.

Get Nighbringer ( Uriel Ventris Book 1) at Amazon

Gaunt’s Ghosts Series

The big bad space marines in their pretty power armor might get all the attention in Warhammer 40K, but there are also trillions of normal men and women in the Imperial Guard, fighting the good fight across countless worlds. The universe is a much more terrifying place when you’re not an eight foot tall genetically enhanced warrior monk, but they fight on in the Emperor’s name all the same, usually while suffering catastrophic casualties.

But they’re not all cannon fodder. Commissar Ibram Gaunt leads an Imperial Infantry Regiment nicknamed the Ghosts due to their impressive stealth and infiltration skills. They are often able to quickly sneak past the barriers that would take space marines more time to smash through, and wreak havoc behind enemy lines with sabotage and assassinations. This 19 book series follows the Ghosts’ involvement in the Sabbat Worlds Crusade, an offensive to retake Imperial worlds in the sector that have fallen to the forces of Chaos. They will fight against armies of heretics, evil robots, traitorous fiends and even demons. Although Gaunt is the titular character and the leader of the team, the narrative focus is more on the ensemble of lethally skilled misfits that make up the Ghosts. They’re a Gothic sci-fi take on the Dirty Dozen, a small squad of specialists working against impossible odds in an insane war. These books also do an excellent job of showing you just how scary the Warhammer 40K universe is for all the normal people unlucky enough to live there.

Get First and Only (Gaunt's Ghosts Book 1) at Amazon

The Eisenhorn Trilogy

In case it’s not abundantly clear, the Warhammer 40K universe is full of weird and horrifying things that love to kill humans. Hostile aliens known and unknown, ravenous monsters, mutant infestations, Chaos conspirators, sentient diseases and militant heretics threaten to cripple and destroy the Imperium from every possible angle.

The Inquisition was founded to investigate and root out these hidden threats, and to keep the most disturbing shit they find a secret so the masses won’t lose their minds. To that end, the clandestine institution enjoys nearly limitless authority, able to command even a chapter of space marines to stand down and forget what they saw. Imperial Inquisitors are intelligent, tenacious, and ruthless individuals allowed to pursue objectives as they see fit, with only a facsimile of oversight.

Gregor Eisenhorn is one of the greatest Inquisitors—everything he investigates turns out to be much worse than it first appeared. A hunt for a mass murderer turns into a quest to recover an ancient and evil sorcerous tome, or a simple jailbreak turns out to be linked to a heretical conspiracy within the Inquisition. Although there is plenty of action, these novels are focused less on combat  and more on the investigation of a mystery. They are more plot and character-driven than the books about big battles. Inquisitors are part spy and part detective, and they are rarely able to simply kill their way to a solution, which leads to interesting complications. Eisenhorn’s star pupil, Gideon Ravenor, goes on to become a legendary Inquisitor himself and stars in his own trilogy of books.

Get Xenos (Eisenhorn Book 1) at Amazon

The Beast Arises Series

Of all the hostile aliens that like to pick fights with the Imperium of Man, I must confess that the Orks are my favorite. This army of big, dumb brutes with ramshackle war machines held together by nothing but faith are as hilarious as they are dangerous. They prove that even the most brilliant defense strategy can be broken by an endless horde of well-armed idiots. And since the Orks live only to make war, diplomacy is not a choice—they would always rather fight than talk.

But every now and then, a smart ork will rise up and unite numerous tribes into a giant war party that will just cut a swathe of wanton destruction across the galaxy until their leader is slain or they run out of enemies. The Beast is the biggest and smartest ork war boss ever encountered, uniting nearly all of his kind under his banner in a surprisingly well-coordinated campaign against many of the most vital worlds of the Imperium, including Holy Terra. Amid the many epic battles against orks that are more menacing than they’ve ever been, this series is also an examination of how the labyrinthine bureaucracy of Imperial leadership has become so bloated with corruption that it bursts under the pressure of a real crisis. Watching the Imperium completely fail its citizens due to its own arrogance reveals a lot about the sociopolitical order of Terra. While it is a massive conflict with many moving parts, the War of the Beast is relatively straightforward and easy for a novice to follow. And it’s a pretty good baseline example of what you can typically expect from the Warhammer 40K universe.

Get I Am Slaughter (The Beast Arises Book 1) at Amazon

While Warhammer 40K may not be high literature, it is epic, action-driven military sci-fi at its most ridiculous, and some of its stupidest stories are also among the best. Whenever I’m in the mood for a big, loud fun time full of explosions, 40K never disappoints. And thanks to the sheer volume of words pumped out by the Black Library, I will never run out of new adventures to read in this strange dark place. If you’ve ever been even slightly intrigued by what Warhammer 40,000 has to offer, the series listed above are some great places to get started and find out if this fictional universe will hold your interest. For me, it’s been a bottomless well of entertainment for over twenty years. I hope you’ll find the same.

About the author

BH Shepherd is a writer and a DJ from Texas. He graduated from Skidmore College in 2005 with degrees in English and Demonology after writing a thesis about Doctor Doom. A hardcore sci-fi geek, noir junkie and comic book prophet, BH Shepherd has spent a lot of time studying things that don’t exist.  He currently resides in Austin, where he is working on The Greatest Novel Ever.

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