Enter Into The Grim Dark Future (Part 1)
Shadowhawk writes a beginner’s guide to the Warhammer 40,000 range of Black Library fiction, and takes a look at the various factions within the setting, giving an overall perspective over the entire setting.
“In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war, and these are its proponents. Whether you are looking for tales of the average soldier, or genetically modified special forces, or aliens of all sorts, these novels are a good stepping stone into this all-inclusive setting.” ~Shadowhawk
About 7-8 weeks back, an article went up on the Forbes website that took a look at Warhammer 40,000 fiction from the perspective of a newcomer to the franchise. It was a fairly interesting article that covered some important gateway fiction in the setting, but I had a few issues with the tone and content of the article. This post was meant to come out at around the same time in response to the article but things got busy and it all got delayed till now. The schedule has freed up a bit however, so let’s get to it.
It is important, whenever you present a guide such as this, that you cover a range of factions and authors, rather than focus on a very small handful. I will also make a note that in such cases the writer should take an objective approach to the setting, rather than share only the fiction that the writer thinks is the best. Because then it isn’t a guide for newcomers who would want to experiment and make their own judgements, its just a “What I find to be the best” list.
And that’s not the point now, is it?
I will agree, regardless, that this is an extremely thin line to walk, and in this first installment I will no doubt be guilty of some bias, but I have attempted to maintain some impartiality. Hopefully, this article can guide you into experimenting with the setting, whether you are an old hat, or a newcomer.
So, here is my take on a much more inclusive list of gateway Warhammer 40,000 fiction that I believe represents the variety and spice of the setting, and gives you a good taste of it. The numbering is just for convenience.
Often referred to as the Sword of the Emperor, or the Angels of Death, the Space Marines are an elite military force that is divided into independent, autonomous formations known as Chapters. Each Chapter has a unique culture and set of traditions, which dictate their level and type of interaction with the wider Imperium of Man and with the various other major factions within the galaxy. Space Marines are one of the most common and popular tabletop armies, and over the years there has been a great amount of written fiction about them. Some of it is good, some of it is not, but together it all serves to give a greater understanding of what makes a 7-8 foot, heavily armed and armoured, genetically-enhanced killer who he is.
1. The Ultramarines Omnibus by Graham McNeill | Link
The Ultramarines are the most recognisable sub-faction of Space Marines in the Warhammer 40,000 lore. They are the ones who are almost always promoted (the most) in the tabletop products range when it comes to box-art and rulebooks, and they represent the most “standard” faction in the tabletop game. The novels by Graham McNeill are a great attempt at showing how the Ultramarines are not a generic faction and that they have a specific personality and culture that is just as appealing as that of the other Space Marine sub-factions.
If you want to start reading about Space Marines in an easily-approachable narrative context, then this omnibus is an excellent start. It collects the first three novels – Nightbringer, Warriors of Ultramar, and Dead Sky, Black Sun – which feature the commanding officer of the Ultramarines 4th Company, Captain Uriel Ventris, as he grows into his role as a leader and learns how to go beyond the dictates and teachings of the Codex Astartes, which is the penultimate tome that dictates in minutiae how Space Marines should go to war and maintain their fraternity.
Each novel focuses on a different antagonist faction – Dark Eldar, Tyranids, and Chaos Space Marines – and they function as a great introduction to the wider Warhammer 40,000 setting. The books have an good amount variety in both action and characters, but they can be a bit simplistic and frustratingly slow-paced at times however, so just keep that in mind.
If, after reading the omnibus you would like to continue the adventures of Uriel Ventris, you can pick up the Second Ultramarines Omnibus, also by Graham McNeill.
2. The Space Wolf Omnibus by William King | Link
Featuring a young recruit named Ragnar Blackmane, the third Space Wolf novel Grey Hunter was my first Warhammer 40,000 novel, and I’ve been hooked into the setting ever since. I had borrowed it from a friend, and I loved the different kind of SF that the novel offered. I got a chance some years later to pick up the first omnibus itself, which charts the story of how Ragnar is recruited into the Space Wolves chapter, and two of his early off-world missions against the Chaos forces at large in the galaxy.
The first bit there is important: the first novel explores the recruitment process in detail and displays just how a young teenage boy is transformed into a genetically-enhanced trained soldier who is part of one of the most elite armies in the galaxy. As with Graham McNeill’s The Ultramarines Omnibus, William King’s collection is another example of stories that take a deep look into the culture and traditions of a Space Marine Chapter.
The Space Wolves have a very different aesthetic and theme to them, being Nordic/Viking rather than Greco-Roman as the Ultramarines are, and so they offer something very much unique to the reader. Some people can readily accept the themes at play here, but others take issue with the blandness and simplicity of it, which I disagree with. The novels were written in an era when this was pretty much the official line from Games Workshop and the novels are true to the source material.
The Space Wolves also suffer from some genetic mutations, which sets them further apart from the Ultramarines who are, for want of a better phrase, the “ideal” representation of Space Marines in the lore. As a character, Ragnar epitomises all the qualities that make the Space Wolves who they are. If you are into the tabletop side, then the novels are a bonus since Ragnar Blackmane is a tabletop-playable character in Codex: Space Wolves.
Collecting Space Wolf, Ragnar’s Claw, and Grey Hunter, the first omnibus is a bit dated by now, since there are newer characterisations of the Space Wolves (from other authors) that are a significant departure from what William King did, but it is still a good piece of intro fiction to the setting. I read the books every couple years or so, and for me, they are just as good now as they were when they were first released. The omnibus is definitely among my all-time favourites.
The series unfortunately suffered a change of authors from the fifth book on and went downhill in terms of quality, but Space Wolf: The Second Omnibus is still of importance to get a temporary resolution to Ragnar Blackmane’s story arc.
If you want to explore more Space Wolves after reading this omnibus (or both of them for that matter), then I would recommend Chris Wraight’s Battle of the Fang which is set thousands of years before William King’s novels, and shows the Space Wolves in one of the key defining moments of their ten thousand year history.
3. The Gildar Rift by Sarah Cawkwell | Link
The Space Marine Battles range focuses on battles and events that are mentioned in the various rulebooks and codices, thus framing the narrative in a context that is “familiar” since the novels explore bits of lore that are already “out there”. The Gildar Rift is a debut novel from Sarah Cawkwell, and I think it is one of the better ones in the series, for me. Most importantly, it is a novel that is pretty much perfect for someone new to the setting.
The Gildar Rift explores one of the key battles mentioned in Codex: Chaos Space Marines (various editions) and it presents the narrative from both sides of the conflict: one from the perspective of the Space Marines of the Silver Skulls chapter, and the other from the perspective of the Red Corsairs warband of Chaos Space Marines.
The novel has some great ideas, gives a fairly in-depth look into each faction along with the setting itself, and it seeds a future narrative as well. The stand-out feature of the novel is that it gives a fairly interesting portrayal of Huron Blackheart, a tabletop-playable character from Codex: Chaos Space Marines, who is one of the most important Chaos warlords in the lore and has been featureed in quite a few rulebooks and other pieces of fiction.
The Gildar Rift also contains a well-written space between between the Silver Skulls and the Red Corsairs. Void battles are an often-ignored element of 40k fiction. Very few novels within the setting have a void battle, and thus any novel which does have them is already remarkable for the fact. The detailed and tension-ridden scenes of the void battle in this novel are just as good as those found in some of the other novels, such as Aaron Dembksi-Bowden’s Blood Reaver, Graham McNeill’s Warriors of Ultramar, and William King’s Grey Hunter. 40k space battles are very different than those found in, say, Star Trek and Star Wars since these involve humoungous starships (often the size of cities), and take place over incredible distances. In essence, they are not “personal” and up-front. If there is one element of the novel that should make you read this novel, it is the void battle.
If you would like to explore more Silver Skulls after reading The Gildar Rift, then you can check out any of Sarah Cawkwell’s short stories about them, although they feature an entirely different cast of characters. These are collected in the (now discontinued) eZine Hammer & Bolter, in issues 1, 5, 8 and 15. For more Red Corsairs and Huron Blackheart, you can check out Sarah’s short story The Bitter End in H&B 12 or Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s second Night Lords novel Blood Reaver, which I’ll be talking about more later on in this article.
4. Heroes of the Space Marines | Link
Anthologies are often a great place to start with tie-in fiction when you are taking your first steps and in the spirit of that belief of mine, I would recommend Heroes quite highly. It is the first such anthology to exclusively focus on Space Marines (and Chaos Space Marines), with a really good mix of authors, style and content, something for everyone basically. Some stories here are really good, some are decent, and some are mediocre at best, but the strength of the anthology is in its diversity.
The anthology also contains some springboard stories, such as Graham McNeill’s The Skull Harvest which is a sequel to the Ultramarines Omnibus, or Nick Kyme’s Fires of War which leads into his Tome of Fire trilogy about the Salamanders. The anthology essentially allows you to test out an author’s style and see what fits for you.
If you want more anthology action after this one, then you can pick up either Legends of the Space Marines, or Victories of the Space Marines. Word of warning: these anthologies are currently only offered in the digital format as they are being collected in omnibus format later this year, along with three out-of-print comic strips – Space Marines: The Omnibus. The omnibus will also contain three exclusive and long out-of-print comic strips, which I believe are from the pages of the long-discontinued Inferno magazine or Warhammer Monthly.
The Imperial Guard is often referred to as the Hammer of the Emperor, and it is the workhorse army at the Imperium’s disposal. Where the Space Marines are the elites, more akin to highly trained special ops forces, the Imperial Guard is like a standing national army. The distinction isn’t exact or even entirely specific to those terms, but it serves to delineate the differences between the two forces. For every one Space Marine there are tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of soldiers of the Imperial Guard, and they are often the first response military force of the Imperium. The Imperial Guard is made up of the common men and women of the Imperium and their heroism is of a much different kind than that of the Space Marines.
One thing to note, I’m not as well-read with respect to the Imperial Guard as I would like to be, so this particular list isn’t as diverse as I would prefer. Suffice to say that there are a ton of Imperial Guard novels out there, and that there is as much diversity in those novels as there is in the Space Marine ones.
1. Gaunt’s Ghosts: The Founding by Dan Abnett | Link
Along with Bill King’s third Space Wolf novel, Dan Abnett’s first Gaunt’s Ghosts novel, First and Only, was among my first reads of Warhammer 40,000. Much like the other novel, it too presented a vastly different vision of space opera than I expected, with all the talk of demonic possession and Chaos and its wholly World War II feel to the action. It combined science fiction and fantasy really well, which is why I hold that novel to be one of the better examples of Warhammer 40,000 fiction. It is a truly classic of the setting, and it eases the reader gently into the wider aspects of the world within.
Collecting the novels First and Only, Ghostmaker, and Necropolis, the Gaunt’s Ghosts: The Founding omnibus tells the tale of an Imperial Guard regiment that is bereft of its homeworld, destroyed in an invasion by renegade Chaos forces, and shows how the last men of Tanith carry on the legacy of their society and their culture even as they continue to answer the call to the Emperor’s service. Characters like Colonel-Commissar Ibram Gaunt, Colonel Colm Corbec, Major Elim Rawne, Troopers Brin Milo, Mad Larkin, ‘Try Again’ Bragg and others have become classic and fan-favourites over the years. The story of Gaunt’s Ghosts, the unofficial name for the amalgamated Tanith infantry regiments after the loss of their homeworld, is one that touches upon some of the key themes of a war narrative: honour, duty, loyalty, betrayal, survival, obedience, and so on. We see the Ghosts rise and fall, we see them do the impossible again and again, we see them welcome new blood into their brotherhood from other dispossessed people, ultimately becoming a regiment like none other.
The first novel tells a somewhat straightforward narrative, detailing a campaign that revisits old memories for Gaunt, and shows how his personal past affects his not-so-personal present. He has to struggle against conspiracies and betrayal, has to rise above them in this novel. In the second novel Ghostmaker, Dan Abnett takes an almost anthology-like approach, detailing yet another campaign through flashbacks that flesh out the characters and motivations of some of the key members of the regiment while also putting the Ghosts alongside an unexpected enemy. And in Necropolis, which is in my opinion one of the best Dan Abnett novels to date, the author details a defensive siege campaign of a hive-city, a location like none other in SF. Necropolis also contains some of the finest tank-on-tank duels in Black Library fiction, although sadly they are just teasers, taking second fiddle to all the intense infantry-oriented action going on in the rest of the novel.
If you want more Gaunt’s Ghosts action after reading this omnibus, then I suggest picking up the second in the series, The Saint, which contains the next four novels in the series and carries on the adventures of the Tanith First-and-Only through the eyes of characters old and new.
2. Ciaphas Cain: Hero of The Imperium by Sandy Mitchell | Link
The Ciaphas Cain novels are much like the Gaunt’s Ghosts novels, in that they are both about Imperial Guard regiments nominally led by a Commissar. In the case of the Dan Abnett novels, the Commissar is the senior commanding officer of the regiment (a situation that is extremely rare), while in the case of Sandy Mitchell’s novels, the Commissar is a senior advisor to the regimental leadership and is more of an enforcer of discipline rather than a leader. All theoretically of course, since Ciaphas Cain often finds himself in situations where he turns out to be the leader and ends up saving the day, becoming a hero to all in the process, much to his own chagrin.
If you are looking for some great humour to your Warhammer 40,000 reading, then the first Ciaphas Cain omnibus is a good place to start. Ciaphas Cain is a reluctant and unwilling hero, partnered with an aide who is one of the most seriously-hilarious characters in all of Warhammer 40,000 fiction. The first three books mesh really well together, showing Cain in some of the unlikeliest of missions/campaigns where he is forced to be the hero against his will. The novels have some good action scenes, some great pacing, and great characters, and they are definitely the source of much hilarity. They don’t necessarily dumb down the setting or the events therein, but they provide a very light-hearted look at everything.
And ultimately, that’s the charm of these novels. If not for Colonel-Commissasr Ibram Gaunt, Ciaphas Cain would be my favourite Commissar character.
Once you read Hero of the Imperium and want to continue on with Cain’s adventures, the next omnibus, Defender of the Imperium, is a good place to start. However, by the fourth novel in the series (and the first in the second omnibus) the jokes are all rehashed, and Mitchell keeps revisiting the same kind of situations again and again. They lose their humour value because its all a repeat, just repackaged for another mission/campaign. After having given up in the middle of Cain’s Last Stand, the sixth novel in the series, I’ve never gone back. I am told that the more recent novels are a much better bunch, but I have to read any of them, and given the size of my reading piles these days, I don’t have much of a motivation to get around to reading the new Ciaphas Cain novels.
All the same, I definitely recommend Hero of the Imperium.
3. Warmaster Macharius #1: Angel of Fire by William King | Link
Another entry by Bill King in this list, Angel of Fire, is the first novel in a new trilogy that goes back in time to tell the incredible story of Warmaster Solar Macharius, one of the most successful generals in the history of the Imperial Guard. Macharius is Warhammer 40,000’s homage to the conquests and history of Alexander the Great, the Macedonian King who conquered much of the known world thousands of years ago. His premature death led to the collapse of his empire, which stretched from Macedonia in the West and all the way to the Indo-Persian border in the East. Over the years, Macharius’ lore has grown to closely resemble the successes and failures of one of the most influential conquerors in our history, and in his ongoing trilogy, William King has attempted to capture the feel of that weighty history.
However, Angel of Fire looks on at Macharius through the eyes of a tank crew, rather than through his own eyes. The outsider perspective initially threw me off the novel, but the way that William King tells the story, it becomes a non-issue, almost. Angel of Fire is a snapshot of one of Macharius’ earliest successes and it shows how Macharius’ legend came into being, how he began to carve out his place in the history of the Imperial Guard. The cover by the Gemmell award-winning Raymond Swanland captures the feel and content of Macharius’ legend really well in fact.
Given the tank crew perspective, the novel is packed with intense tank-on-tank and siege battles, but it doesn’t ignore the boots-on-the-ground firefights either. It would have been nice to see much more of the Warmaster in the novel, but I think that Bill King is able to strike a nice balance between the two.
The Imperial Guard is not just the bog-standard infantry regiments, or the highly-trained formations of Stormtroopers and other elite forces, it is also the armour regiments, who have a distinguished pedigree of their own. King’s novel offers an alternative approach to the war as fought by the Imperial Guard, and it is a great ride.
If you want more tank-oriented Imperial Guard goodness, then the sequel, Fist of Demetrius, should be a great place to start. I have not read the book as yet, but it is high on my list of books to read this year. You can also check out newcomer Guy Haley’s recently-released Baneblade which I finished just a few days ago and matches really well with Angel of Fire while also giving a much deeper look into the crew of a Baneblade in particular and an armour regiment in general.
This concludes the first part of this “Intro to Warhammer 40,000” part. The next installment will cover the forces of the Inquisition and the Chaos Space Marines.Till next time!