Forging the Narrative: The Literary Merits of the Black Library and Where to Start if You’re New to 40k Fiction

About seven years ago at San Diego Comic-Con, my wife and I spent an evening drinking with some people we had just met, all of whom turned out to be science fiction authors. I asked the affable guy across the table from me what he had written, and I could see him tense up a little as he said, “I write novels for the Warhammer 40k universe.” “Oh wow, that’s so cool!” I said, “I love 40k!” The small moment of tension passed, and we talked briefly about his work and then returned to an epic game of “what-would-you-rather.”

I had to think about the exchange later to work out why my drinking companion had suddenly become a little frosty when he told me what he wrote. In retrospect, it was obvious: 40k fiction isn’t just genre fiction, it’s sub genre fiction, and most people who have never read Black Library novels probably assume that they are pulpy juvenile trash. Even some of the people who play 40k seem to think this, and I realized at that moment that I might have been one of them had ever I stopped to consider it.

I say “have been” here because after an evening drinking with he-who-shall-remain-nameless, I could not help having a good opinion of this guy as an artist even without having seen his work. (This is probably some kind of irrational personal failing.) So, about a week later, I picked up a 40k novel for the first time. After reading just the first page, I turned to my wife and said, “Wow. This is really well written.”

Fast forward seven years. I have worked my way through about thirty Black Library novels and enjoyed all of them. Most were excellent- many were better written in my opinion than much of the more mainstream science fiction produced around the same time. But what I find most impressive about the stories, especially the ones focused on the exploits of the Space Marines, is that according to conventional wisdom, it should nearly be impossible to make them compelling.

To explain why, we need to talk for a moment about T.S. Elliot. [Alternatively you can just ignore this foray into literary criticism and scroll down to see concrete suggestions for first reads.] At the time he published the “The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock” in 1963, Elliot was widely celebrated as the most influential literary critic in the English-speaking world. (His influence since then has taken a huge dive because: a) he’s dead, and b) he had some pretty repugnant political and personal beliefs. Despite these failings, he said some insightful things about literature.) In the Prufrock poem, the speaker agonizes over his place in the universe, and points out that he is: “not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be,” but rather is an “attendant lord that will do to swell a scene or two.” Elliot makes the point both in this poem and in his literary criticism that the modern world is one in which most readers no longer feel connected to stories told from the perspective of larger-than-life heroes, impossible paragons humanity so unreachable that they no longer feel real. Consider Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which re-enters the play Hamlet and makes its themes accessible by exploring them from the perspective of two nobodies. Stoppard’s angle on Hamlet is one that has meaning for a modern reader: two regular dudes with imperfect information trying to make sense of a universe over which they have no control.

Perhaps you are thinking that this is ridiculous. After all, the explosive success of super hero films in the last 15 years demonstrates that larger-than-life heroes have never been more popular. However, a close look at the super-hero genre from the 1960s to the present day will actually reinforce the claim that modern readers find paragons of human perfection to be alienating and uninteresting.

Nowhere is Elliot’s point better illustrated than in Marvel Comics. What made Marvel Comics special back in the 60s was that that their protagonists were like regular people: broken and flawed. Most DC heroes of the 50s and 60s were wholesome crusaders: true-believer-magical-boy-scouts who could run impossibly fast, swim like fish, or even fly; all while defending America, apple pie, and good hygiene against mad scientists, war mongers, and two-dimensional bullies. I’m not saying that lots of those comics were not enjoyable or that they did not have timely and important thematic content, (like when Superman took on the KKK,) but there is no doubt that what set Marvel Comics apart- and what probably accounts for the tremendous success of Marvel as a franchise- is that from the beginning the characters were more relatable because they were flawed and broken; they were like real human beings. Since then, DC has moved much closer to the Marvel model, especially with the Dark Knight version of the Batman franchise.

What does any of this have to do with 40K? Take Space Marines. Space Marines are a great concept for a wargame, but maybe not such great protagonists for a novel. After all, the Adeptus Astartes are impossibly strong testosterone-vending-machines who are not only physically powerful, but incapable of fear, incapable of lust, incapable of… well, pretty much all the flaws that make characters relatable and interesting except perhaps pride. And yet, Black Library authors not only make these neckless-space-knights nuanced and interesting, but they do so without undermining their essential in-humanity and yet write stories that are paradoxically profoundly human.

Consider Garviel Loken, one of the protagonists of Horus Rising, the first of the 54 novels in the Horus Heresy series that tells the tale of a galactic civil war 10,000 years before the current 40k setting. Loken begins the story as a true believer, a member of Horus’s inner circle who is inducted into a brotherhood of elite advisors. Over the course of the book, Loken’s understanding of Horus and of the Adeptus Astartes in general is gradually transformed from simplistic faith in an age of heroes to the horrified realization that the Warmaster has become a monster, and that the universe he inhabits is far more morally complex than he ever dreamed.

Despite being a genetically enhanced super-soldier with none of the flaws that render characters relatable in fiction, Logan is easy to connect with because his transformation is essentially a coming-of-age experience familiar to all of us.

Horus, on the other hand, is a character reminiscent of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Observing his fall, we see shades not only of Milton’s Lucifer, but numerous characters from real history including Julius Caesar who convinced the thirteenth legion to march on Rome by persuading them that their beloved home was in the grips of bureaucrats who neither understood nor valued the lives of the soldiers. Horus’s gradual corruption and that of his legions are not only believable but evocative of dynamics that have appeared over and over again in real history.

The Horus Heresy books in particular are rich with these sorts of allusions. Readers who love literature and history will notice references to Shakespeare, medieval church politics, 19th century poetry, and even more esoteric classics, while readers who either don’t know or don’t care about such connections can enjoy the stories without them.

Another technique that gives readers an in-road to these narratives is the inclusion of regular human beings who are not only foils for the Space Marines, helping to showcase the power and grandeur of the Emperor’s finest, but also a way of offering a bridge between those characters and ourselves. The Horus Heresy novels include “Remembrancers,” human artists who have been assigned to the expansionary fleets of the Great Crusade in order to chronicle the achievements of the Astartes. The conversations between the Space Marines and the Remembrancers are a little like the one between Balin and Bilbo at the end of The Hobbit when Balin says, “If ever you visit us again, when our halls are made fair once more, then the feast shall indeed be splendid,” and Bilbo replies, “If you are ever passing my way, don’t wait to knock. Tea is at four, but you are welcome anytime.”  They have said the same thing to one another, but one in the language of 10th century heroic-age poetry, and the other with the everyday modern manners of a middle-class Englishman. Bilbo helps bridge the gap between the modern world and an age of heroes; the human characters in the stories about Space Marines do the same.

And it isn’t just the Space Marines. Some of the Black Library stories are written from the perspective of alien races, like the eldar, who -unlike the aliens in many sci fi universes- are not just weird looking human beings, different from homo-sapiens on the outside but mentally and emotionally indistinguishable from us. A number of Black Library authors excel at writing aliens, which is hugely impressive. It is incredibly difficult to write for regular humans from the perspective of believable non-humans. It was for this reason that George Martin said that the chapters in Game of Thrones from the perspective of the wolves were by far the most challenging to write.

If you like the 40k universe, then there are multiple Black Library books you probably would enjoy. If the only reason you haven’t given them a try is that you assumed fiction inspired by a wargame could not possibly be good, then I am here to tell you that although I might have assumed the same, we were wrong. Some of these books are not only every bit as engaging as good mainstream sci-fi, they have real literary merit. If you don’t have the time to read, the audio versions are a great solution. Most are available in on Audible, and if you participate in the hobby side of 40k an Audible subscription so that you can listen to books while you paint is the best $15 a month you can spend.

Okay, hopefully I have convinced you to at least go wading in the grim-dark ocean that is the Black Library. If so, here are some suggestions for possible first reads that showcase some of the best of what the BL has to offer.

1) Horus Rising (Dan Abnett)
Operatic in scope and literary in prose, this first book in The Horus Heresy series and easily one of the best Black Library books of all time. It’s a both a great read and a great listen. The first page alone should sell you on it.

Also, once you have read the first three books in this 54-book series: Horus Rising, False Gods, and Galaxy in Flames, you can pretty much pick and choose which other Horus Heresy books you want to read and in what order. Although there is a definite benefit to reading chronologically, it isn’t necessary once you have the narrative foundation of books 1-3, all of which are highly engaging.

Every tenth book in the Horus Heresy series is a collection of short stories, many of which are just plain excellent. I have to throw in a plug here for my favorite 40k short story of all time, Graeme McNeill’s the “The Last Church.” It features no battles, no personal combat; it’s the story of the very last priest of the very last church on Terra as he stays up all night drinking and talking with the mysterious commander of an Adeptus Astartes battalion dispatched to this remote corner of what was once Scotland to carry out the Emperor’s command. It’s masterfully written and utterly riveting to read.

2) Eisenhorn: Xenos (Dan Abnett)
This is the first book in an adventure series about an imperial Inquisitor and his band of sidekicks as they hunt down evil and navigate the serpentine wydings of inquisitorial politics. The Eisenhorn trilogy is not as emotionally demanding as the Horus Heresy books, but it has great character development and creates a balance between the Grim Dark setting of the 40k universe and typical adventure tropes without being predictable. The voice acting on the audio productions is top tier.

The Eisenhorn novels are allegedly being adapted for television; you can read about it here:

3) For the Emperor! (Sandy Mitchell)

For the Emperor follows the adventures of an Imperial Commissar named Ciaphas Cain and his dim-witted sidekick Jurgen. Cain is an unusual hero in the 40k universe in that he believes himself to be a profoundly unheroic fraud, and his exploits involve as much dry humor as they do action. If you are a fan of the old British television show Blackadder, you will see more than a little of Edmund Blackadder and Baldric in the novel’s main characters.

For the Emperor is the first of a ten book series that offers a nice alternative to the gritty grim-dark stories of the Horus Heresy. The audio version of the first book is a delight.

For Eldar players…
You will probably already have noticed that the vast majority of Black Library fiction is centered around the Imperium of Man, which makes sense as this is the anchor perspective for the whole 40k universe and therefore likely to be the best material for a wider audience. Even if you are primarily interested in Eldar, I strongly recommend reading or listening to some of these other books as they will enrich your enjoyment of the 40k universe overall.

That said, as this website is generally devoted to 40k players interested in Craftworld Eldar, I had better mention my favorite novels focused on these space-elf aesthetes.

4) Asurman: Hand of Asuryan, and Jain Zar: The Storm of Silence (Gav Thorpe)

These novels are set in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Aeldari Empire, chronicling the origin story of the Pheonix Lords Asurman and Jain Zar. Both stories feature compelling narratives and character development, but I love them most of all for their world-building. The Eldar portion of the 40k IP owes a huge debt to Gav Thorpe who has been the driving force behind most of what we know about the everyday lives of the Asuryani. He also writes great action scenes.

Both of these novels are available on Audible and both are well-performed by skilled voice actors. If you are looking to expand your knowledge of space elves and make your next painting project even more enjoyable, these two novels are great picks.

So there you have it!

There are lots of ways to enjoy the Warhammer IP. Some people collect and paint miniatures, but don’t play the tabletop game, while others enjoy 40k video games but are unlikely to ever buy a model. Regardless of how you interact with the weird worlds of the 41st millennium, a foray into the 40K fiction will be highly rewarding.

If you discover a 40k book that is not-to-be-missed, don’t hesitate to send me a recommendation using the “Contact” tab at the top of the page.

Happy reading.

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3 thoughts on “Forging the Narrative: The Literary Merits of the Black Library and Where to Start if You’re New to 40k Fiction

  1. What a sensational article, I could not agree with your points more.

    Always look forward to your articles, Brent!

  2. I just wish Gav would stop mass killing off the eldar and improve his ability to write dialogue. Yes the events on Alaitoc were tragic but once you become known as the ‘Dead Elf Guy’ I think you should probably figure out a new trope to shove into each book. It comes off like he’s trying to hype Tolkien rather than let the eldar be themselves. I can only hear about the Ynnari getting nearly wiped out (repeatedly) so many times before I start wondering why Ynnead chose Yvraine. Is it because they both have Y names?

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