Genre is a funny thing. It’s essentially a way of breaking media down into different characters. It’s something I could spend hours talking about. But it also doesn’t really exist. The obsession with categorising everything we read feels like a very modern concern. After all, back in the day the pulp magazines published Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction under the same bracket. You can see the legacy of that anytime you visit Waterstones. Horror may have been partitioned off behind a fence, but Sci-Fi and Fantasy mingle freely. The reason is simple: A lot of the time, one bleeds into the other.
Personally, I love tracking the genres and subgenres of the books I read. After all, we all need something to do in our spare time. I keep Science Fiction and Fantasy strictly separate on my shelves (I even have an Apocrypha shelf for things like Steampunk and Urban Fantasy). Being a large shared universe, Warhammer 40,000 has a bookcase all of its own. Actually, it became two bookcases not so long ago. But within that one setting there are a dozen subgenres. It’s this variety that keeps the setting fresh. I love Military SF, but sometimes I want to read something more civilian-centric. Warhammer 40,000 allows me to do this without leaving the setting.
Broadly speaking, I break genre down into three types. The first is worldbuilding. Is a book Hard SF, Space Opera, or outright Science Fantasy? When modern SF readers talk about genre, this is the one they’re usually referring to. But there’s also narrative genre. Is a book an Adventure, a Romance, or a Horror? Finally, there is thematic genre. Is a work comedic, tragic, or something else. This category also covers grimdark, a genre that Warhammer pioneered, but which has become a great big meaningless mess that somewhat ironically mirrors the confusion over genre as a whole. Every book has more than one genre, and I tend to categorise a book by whichever the dominant genre is. A comedy about soldiers might not be a Military SF, but a Hard SF novel about the role of the army in near-Earth orbit, that would be Military SF through and through.
Warhammer 40,000 mixes a lot of genres together, and not always in ways you might expect. One book might slot nicely into one genre, while others are a tangle of several. There are a lot of genres that I don’t particularly like, but that I can put up with if they accompany another one. What this means for Warhammer is that there is something in there for everyone. All you need to know is where to start looking. And that’s what this article is all about. Here’s a quick breakdown of the genres you can expect to find, and where to find them.
Who doesn’t enjoy a nice slice of adventure? Warhammer 40,000 may lend itself to the clashes of great armies, but there is a space for stories of smaller groups. Spaces often occupied by Rogue Traders. Blackstone Fortress is a little corner of the universe where you can find them, but they often spill out into the wider setting.
- Blackstone Fortress, by Darius Hinks – This and its sequels are essentially Dungeons and Dragons in space, as Rogue Trader Janus Draik and his associates investigate a massive alien fortress.
- Rogue Trader Omnibus, by Andy Hoare – This follows a different Rogue Trader as he tries to rebuild his family’s reputation, while also encountering the T’au aliens for the first time.
As war sweeps across the galaxy, planets are consumed by flames. The order of ‘Exterminatus’ is effectively a kill order for anyone left on the surface. And that’s just the Imperium. Threats like the Tyranids can devour whole ecosystems in their never-ending search for biomass.
- Cadia Stands, by Justin D Hill – This book chronicles the dying days of Cadia, a planet famous in Warhammer lore for having never fallen to the enemy. Until now.
Warhammer started off as a satire, and even though it has evolved in the decades since, sometimes it goes back to its comedic roots. Nowhere is this more obvious than with the Orks, who are not only tearing the Galaxy apart, they’re having a great time doing it.
- Brutal Kunnin, by Mike Brooks – This darkly hilarious novel shows just what an Ork can achieve if he puts his mind to it. Spoiler alert: It’s a whole lot of mayhem
Away from the battlefields of the galaxy, the citizens of the Imperium live in a state of constant fear. Not least because the threat of death is a lot closer to help. The Warhammer Crime range is a study of just one city, but it has enough crime to satisfy any reader.
- Flesh and Blood, by Guy Haley – The most uniquely Warhammer of these crime novels, this one is all about the messy world of servitors, and a dark insight into what the grimdark future does with its dead. It’s also a perfect odd couple buddy cop read.
In the grim darkness of the future, there is only war. Grimdark is a vein that runs through all Warhammer works, but some lean more heavily on it than others. The grimdark you’ll find here isn’t just the boring nihilism that has overwhelmed fantasy in recent years, it can be brutally funny too.
- Xenos, by Dan Abnett – One of the earliest Black Library novels is still a masterpiece. It’s positively bursting with grime, grotesque characters, and all the blood and guts you can handle.
The Warhammer universe is a horrifying place to live. There are daemons lurking at the edges of reality. Gods are real, and they hate us. The Warhammer Horror range showcase a lot of horror subgenres, and there’s still more to come.
- Sepultrum, by Nick Kyme – What happens when a city of millions is overrun by a zombie plague? This book has the answers. Answers that are not for the faint of heart.
- The Watcher in the Rain, by Alec Worley – This audio drama shows that sometimes the worst horrors are not the monsters of space, but the evil that humankind is willing to do to one another.
The genre that Warhammer 40,000 is most famous for, there are too many examples to count. Suffice to say that if you like stories of the hopelessness of war, you’re going to find something in the grim dark future.
- First and Only, by Dan Abnett – The first Gaunt’s Ghosts book, this has kicked off a series lasting over twenty years. That’s longer than most of its characters.
- Scions of Elysia, by Chris Dows – The first in a trilogy of audio drams, this one looks at the Warhammer equivalent of paratroopers as their commanding officer is investigated for potential heresy.
Okay, you got me. There’s not a whole lot of love going on in these parts. But I am waiting to be proven wrong.
Warhammer 40,000 started off tied to Warhammer Fantasy, and though those bonds have weakened over the editions, there’s still a bit of magic to be found here and there. Especially when you’re dealing with psykers and daemons.
- Ephrael Stern: The Heretic Saint, by David Annandale – A warrior angel of the far future, Ephrael Stern’s quest for redemptions shows just how powerful faith can be.
This might not look like the obvious palace to sit back and reflect on the nature of humanity, but you’d be surprised. Just because it’s not a society we recognise, doesn’t mean we can’t learn a lesson or two.
- Cadian Honour by Justin D Hill – This book and sequel Traitor Rock take a deep look at the psyche of soldiers who spend their whole existence fighting. It’s a brilliant tale, but not a pretty picture.
Told across hundreds of planets and thousands of years, with figures of myth and larger than life deeds, how could Warhammer not be Space Opera? Especially when one of its most famous stories is over sixty books in the making.
- Avenging Son, by Guy Haley – Launching a bold new age for Warhammer, this mighty tome is just the start of something much, much larger.
Once you introduce Time Travel to a setting, it’s something you have to deal with the consequences of forever. No wonder the forty-first millennium has always been cagey about temporal travelling.
- Ahriman: The Omnibus, by Jonathan French – A twisting, turning story of madness and chaos, this one might take a while to get your head around. But if you do, you’ll be in time for the soon-to-be-released fourth book.
Ultimately, all of Warhammer 40,000 is a tragedy. It’s the story of a dozen dying empires all lashing out at one another as the forces of Chaos watch on and laugh. Everything ends in death, and the best you can hope for is that your death means something.
- The Twice-Dead King: Ruin, by Nate Crowley – The fall of the Necrontyr is the greatest of all tragedies, and in this book it is exposed for the first time.
- Titan’s Bane, by Chris Dows – This audio drama is the story of a single tank crew against overwhelming odds. It also boasts the most haunting ending in the entire franchise.
So there you have it. Whatever genre you’re looking to read, Warhammer 40,000 likely has it. All you need to do is take the plunge.