Warhammer 40,000 is a broad, expansive setting which can be daunting for those looking for a starting point into the lore. Black Library releases dozens of new Warhammer 40k books every year, ranging from short stories to multi-novel series. With this, there is so much to choose from and finding an opening can be tricky. Fortunately, some of Black Library's best work also lines up well for franchise newcomers.
Best Warhammer 40k books
- Eisenhorn: Omnibus by Dan Abnett: “My patience isn’t limitless… unlike my authority.”
- Space Wolf: The First Omnibus by William King: "War Within. War Without. War Unending. That is how we live, little brother. That is who we are."
- Night Lords: The Omnibus by Aaron Dembski-Bowden: "May the Warp be with you."
- Ciaphas Cain: Hero of the Imperium by Sandy Mitchell: "When in deadly danger, When beset by doubt, Run in little circles, wave your arms and shout!"
- Gaunt's Ghosts (Series) by Dan Abnett: "The Tanith First. The First-and-Only. That's what makes us 'Ghosts', you see."
- Betrayer by Aaron Dembski-Bowden: "Blood for the Blood God."
It's worth noting that a hefty chunk of the Black Library literature centres around the Imperial Guard, Space Marines and the Inquisition, as these are the most accessible factions within the Warhammer 40,000 franchise. Often human factions see popularity through association, which leads to deeper lore and extra resources to continue this trend. It may feel discouraging to see your favourite Xenos race not get the recognition they deserve, but the literature does exist - only in smaller doses.
Also, you don't require a background in the game to appreciate the source material as these are independently good sci-fi novels. However, if you do play or collect the miniatures, these Warhammer books will help paint a clearer picture of the characters and events that occur within the universe.
1. Eisenhorn: Omnibus by Dan Abnett
“My patience isn’t limitless… unlike my authority.”
Eisenhorn follows the successful career of Gregor Eisenhorn, Inquisitor of the Ordo Xenos. Eisenhorn tackles corruption in every corner of the galaxy, from mutants and daemons to heretics. Throughout the series, Eisenhorn manages to convince you that he has everything under control while slowly losing his grip due to the influence of Chaos. As a result, the events temper Eisenhorn's moral compass that presents a fine line between loyalty and betrayal. Within this omnibus edition, there are three full-length novels - Xenos, Malleus and Hereticus - which all share the same name as the Ordos (or commonly known as Orders) within the Inquisition.
Eisenhorn is ideal for the entry-level Warhammer 40,000 enthusiast as it offers a blend of action, character development and moral disposition in an easy to follow writing style. To that end, think of Eisenhorn as the 41st Millennium’s own Sherlock Holmes with Jack Bauer thrown in for good measure. If you enjoy science fiction, especially with technology blended within a religious backdrop, then this is the ideal Warhammer book for you.
2. Space Wolf: The First Omnibus by William King
"War Within. War Without. War Unending. That is how we live, little brother. That is who we are."
Every hero begins somewhere, and Space Wolf: The First Omnibus follows the story of Ragnar Blackmane. The series is unique from the other Space Marine material as Ragnar isn't an all-powerful hero from the get-go. The First Omnibus features a trilogy of stories - Space Wolf, Ragnar's Claw and Grey Hunter - which offers a glimpse into one of Warhammer's most beloved characters.
With this, you get a sneak peek into the history of the Space Marines and the fabled process to induction. Author William King does an outstanding job of slowly exposing you to the Space Marine lore, making this an ideal starting point for Space Marine enthusiasts. There's a lot of detail that the Codex: Space Wolves does not provide, such as why the Chapter avoids wearing helmets and how they behave differently compared to other factions. Space Wolf: The First Omnibus is full of action, character growth and offers insight into one of Space Marine's most-loved Chapters. Besides, who doesn't love Vikings in space?
3. Night Lords: The Omnibus by Aaron Dembski-Bowden
"May the Warp be with you."
Throughout Night Lords: The Omnibus, Aaron Dembski-Bowden has the members of Night Lord First Squad interact with and battle a diverse cast of allies and adversaries. Leading the charge is Talos Valcoran, a genetically modified super-soldier with a quest to seek vengeance upon the human empire he helped create. Night Lord: Omnibus is a compilation of three novels: Soul Hunter, Blood Reaver and Void Stalker.
Although a Traitor Legion, you'll end up sympathising with the Night Lords due to Dembski-Bowden's ability to give these characters emotion. In some cases, you'll cheer them on as they are faced with various challenges throughout, despite their horrific deeds against humankind and Xenos alike. Outside of conflict, the Night Lords grapple with the memories of their lost Primarch, the Imperium and themselves. Night Lords: Omnibus is one of the best book series you can read within the Warhammer 40,000 setting. It's dark, tragic and offers insight into a deeply misunderstood faction. Even then, you don't need to do any further reading as the trilogy is independent of any other Black Library material.
4. Ciaphas Cain: Hero of the Imperium by Sandy Mitchell
"When in deadly danger, When beset by doubt, Run in little circles, wave your arms and shout!"
If Blackadder translated to Warhammer 40,000, it would be Ciaphas Cain. The series follows the struggles of Commissar Ciaphias Cain, a happy-go-lucky leader with the infamous task of holding discipline amongst an army of unruly people. Cain is clever at covering his shenanigans while keeping the image as a hero of the Imperium. The series is positively charming as it offers comedic relief in an atmosphere that is often severe and brutal. Thanks to Cain's honest and sarcastic approach, it breaks the disparity that you typically see in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, resulting in an enjoyable read.
Hero of the Imperium collects the first three novels - For the Emperor, Caves of Ice and The Traitor’s Hand - plus three exclusive short stories. If you want more tales, there are seven more novels that follow the adventures of this likeable protagonist. Due to its light tone and easy understanding of the factions within Warhammer 40,000, Hero of the Imperium presents a decent entry into the lore for franchise beginners. If you are looking for a lighter read to break the grimdark motif with humour and dry wit, then Ciaphas Cain delivers.
5. Gaunt's Ghosts (Series) by Dan Abnett
"The Tanith First. The First-and-Only. That's what makes us 'Ghosts', you see."
Inspired by Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe series, Gaunt's Ghosts follows the adventures of Colonel-Commissar Ibram Gaunt and his regiment of Tanith First and Only - or better known as Gaunt's Ghosts. Their battleground is the Sabbat Worlds Crusade: an Imperial effort to reconquer a sector of space overwhelmed by the armies of Chaos.
Written by Dan Abnett, Gaunt's Ghosts is one of the most successful series within the Black Library catalogue as it offers a human tone. You can easily sympathise with the characters as they are individuals in a harsh and uncaring galaxy. As a result, it makes these characters more relatable compared to the almost god-like Space Marines. With 15 books in the series, you'll want to begin with First and Only as it sets the tone and offers a solid foundation to the Imperial Guard (now known as the Astra Militarum). If you enjoy end-to-end action, camaraderie and sacrifice similar to Band of Brothers, then Gaunt's Ghosts is for you.
6. Betrayer by Aaron Dembski-Bowden
"Blood for the Blood God."
Continuing the story of the Word Bearers and jumping into the origins of Angron and the World Eaters, Betrayer takes place shortly after the events of Dan Abnett's Know No Fear. Betrayer is the 24th entry in the Horus Heresy series that describes a story of loss, anger and - you guessed it - betrayal.
The novel expands on the back story of the Chaos World Eaters Legion and their Primarch, Angron. Before this, it was easy to think of the World Eaters as one-dimensional, with the usual ‘Blood for the Blood God’ rage and Angron’s bitterness as their defining features. However, Aaron Demski-Bowden does remarkable work of building on these traits to add flavour and depth, which is a common theme throughout the Horus Heresy series. Admittedly, it's not for the faint-hearted as Betrayer is incredibly detailed on the violence and jammed-packed with action. The novel is also best appreciated if you already have foreknowledge of the Heresy Legions or the Chaos Space Marines; if you want to find out more, then you'll want to begin with Horus Rising, the first entry in the Horus Heresy series written by Abnett.
If you prefer to digest your content on-the-go or prefer a stronger narrative to your storytelling, Black Library publications are accessible in audiobook form. Even if you aren't engaged in playing or collecting the miniatures, Black Library offers some of the best sci-fi content around and it's only going to continue.
While it's challenging to keep up with every Black Library release, it's best to stick to your favourite characters or factions then expand from there. Even then, you can always dip into something else if you fancy a change of pace or setting. Black Library publications extend outside of Warhammer 40,000 too, so you can read up on Age of Sigmar or Necromunda if you are curious about the franchise before investing into the games. It's a safe way to see something is right for you before bearing any financial commitment. Often you’ll find Black Library content can spark creativity in your next competitive list, or inspire your next kit-bash conversion. With dozens of Warhammer books and short stories released every year, there is something for everyone and it’s never a bad time to jump into the lore.