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Inside Warhammer’s Black Library

The world of Warhammer seems a confusing place from the outside. The franchise has amassed a wealth of well-loved lore and literature around its iconic Space Marines that makes it one of the most developed military sci-fi properties out there… but where do you start?

I recently delved into the literature and lore-proper of the Warhammer 40k universe for the first time and I have some recommendations for you so far.

Back in the day, besides enjoying the occasional ultra-violent sci-fi short story from a schoolmates’ White Dwarf magazines, the tabletop games passed me by as I was always a computer kid. My formative Commodore 64-era experience of Warhammer’s offerings consisted of a primitive backwards port of the Amiga HeroQuest in the early 90s.

HeroQuest on the Amiga from 1991

I did, however, somehow acquire a copy of the original tabletop edition of Space Hulk and its expansion pack Deathwing in my late teens. This was Warhammer 40k’s original take on putting their Space Marines in life-and-death situations in the confined corridors of massive, abandoned starships in pure Cameron Aliens stylee. And with it came the prerequisite scene-setting short-story books that formed the briefing backstory for the game’s missions.

The PS4 version of Space Hulk: Deathwing

These were of more interest to younger me than the dice and rulers of the tabletop game itself ever was, and it was the recollection of the excellent backstory booklet of the Deathwing Space Marine Terminator squads that triggered me to search Amazon and see if it was something I could get hold of around 30 years later.

Turns out the Warhammer Black Library had published it for Kindle in the form of the first of my recommendations below. So between this and the fact that Space Marine RTS Dawn of War in the early 2000s was one of the single largest factors in revitalising my computer gaming predilection, I’ve ended up reading around 20 of the other books set in the 40k universe.

The list below is something of a primer. It’s for people who, like me, are not particularly invested in the Warhammer universe but just fancy some fantastical easy-reading military science fiction and can stomach the crossovers into space-magic and the lack of any interest in scientific rigour for the sake of a good yarn.

Deathwing (Deathwing Anthology)

Bryan Ansell and William King

Published originally in the 1980s, this anthology of short stories opens with the tale of a group of mighty Deathwing Space Marines returning to their home world to follow their tradition of recruiting new warriors, only to find it not as they expect.

The following crusade of righteous bloodshed is the perfect introduction to what Warhammer does best, which is keep the heroics flowing in unabashedly 80s action-movie fashion. It’s this adherence to rapid-fire action and excitement over high-concept and substantive character that makes it perfect brain-off entertainment for me, as well as a good jumping-off point for those who have no idea what to expect.

Xenos (Eisenhorn Book 1)

Dan Abnett

Eisenhorn is an Inquisitor of the Imperium of Mankind. That, to you and me, means he’s the principal character of a four-book series of what are fundamentally detective stories infused with the sort of lunatic twists and turns made possible by the Warhammer 40k world’s lack of fealty to the science-y side of science fiction.

The detective novel crossover works well for two reasons. Firstly, because the stories can feature something more of the substance of the people that populate them rather than focusing solely on essentially one-dimensional martial beings like Space Marines; and secondly, because the wider world lends itself to convolution and plot within plot.

This one is also a very well-written page-turner in every possible way, balanced more towards the action side again of course. If you want to read Warhammer you should get used to that, but still it ranks as one of the more generally accessible series in the oeuvre I’ve come across so far. There’s rumour that Eisenhorn will be making an appearance in a TV series, too, which is apparently in development.

The Emperor’s Gift

Aaron Dembski-Bowden 

A relatively rare standalone book, by a talented and well-regarded Warhammer author. It’s a story of the most specialist of the specialist Space Marines of the Grey Knights chapter, who are essentially the highest possible technology version of the witchfinders of old in a world where the witches are in ascendance, and who use similar psychic powers to the demonic enemies they hunt and destroy.

There are several books covering the Grey Knights and they’re particularly fun because these guys exist (much like the Inquisition of the Eisenhorn books) in the borderlands of having to constantly do the unthinkable in order to effectively fight the otherwise undefeatable evil of their universe. This book also really underlines just how many distinct layers of constant warfare are taking place in the age of strife Warhammer 40k uses as its backdrop and how failure of any one might bring the whole edifice of civilisation crashing down.

It’s a great story of the desperate struggle of a few mighty warriors who exist on the knife-edge between victory and defeat at all times.

That’s all for now, but I’ll be back with more choice picks when I’ve worked through some more of the 54 (so far, apparently) books of the Horus Heresy, and I hope you enjoy some of these as much as I did.

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