My first experience with Games Workshop’s tabletop miniature war game Warhammer 40,000 left me rather unimpressed. Basically it involved moving around a bunch of little metal figures and rolling dice to see if I hit anything. The figures were these cool futuristic looking soldiers, but you had to paint them and my painting skills are terrible.
Still there was something about the visual aesthetic of the miniatures and the world they inhabit that stuck with me. Imagine a world that combines noirish intrigue, Lovecraftian horror, psychic powers, the futuristic war machines and technology of Star Wars and Dune, the fantasy races of Tolkein, and features a very cool heavy metal album style visual aesthetic. That’s the expertly blended cocktail that is the universe of Warhammer 40K. It might not have impressed me to see it played out on a tabletop, but it was epically cool in my head. So one day I decided to take another a look at the larger Warhammer 40K universe, especially the tie-in fiction.
As the title suggests Warhammer 40K takes place 38,000 years from now and it’s a grim, dark, future for mankind, which has become an empire that stretches across the Milky Way galaxy. The Imperium’s expansion has caused its military to bump up against a host of fearsome intergalactic civilizations like the mysterious Eldar (Warhammer 40K’s version of elves), the rampaging and barbaric Orks, the predatory ecosystem of biomechanical organisms known as the Tyranids, and the high-tech collectivist humanoids known as the Tau.
Mankind’s true enemy though is far more sinister. Deep inside the mysterious dimension known as the Warp, which humanity uses to accomplish interstellar travel, live four ancient and powerful godlike beings collectively known as the Ruinous Powers of Chaos. These all-powerful beings and the demons that serve them have been plaguing the universe for so long that many millennia ago the psychics and shamans of Earth gathered together to create a messiah to combat their influence.
This messiah came to be known as the God Emperor of Mankind and between the 20th and 30th millenniums he tried to unite humanity and combat its various enemies. His primary weapon for doing this, an army of genetic super soldiers known as the Adeptus Astartes or Space Marines, also became his downfall, because in the 31st millennium the Powers of Chaos corrupted half their number and kicked off a seven-year intergalactic civil war known as the Horus Heresy. When it was over the God Emperor lay in a vegetative state and the Imperium had become a paranoid and xenophobic culture.
That’s the backdrop for most Warhammer 40K novels and I was particularly fascinated by a specific type of novel that appealed to the crime fiction fan in me, the Inquisitor series. The Imperial Inquisition are kind of the Batmen of the Warhammer universe. They’re not super soldiers like the Space Marines. They’re men and women tasked with investigating, rooting out, and destroying various alien, demonic, and cult conspiracies against the Imperium.
My first foray into the world of Inquisitors was the Eisenhorn omnibus by Dan Abnett, which collects the novels in the titular trilogy plus two interconnecting short stories. It follows the adventures of Imperial Inquisitor Gregor Eisenhorn and his associates over the span of several centuries. The stories read like a mash-up of spy thrillers, space opera, and pulp horror, and are even more enjoyable thanks to the tight bonds among the characters that recall the great group dynamics in Firefly, Farscape, and Star Wars.
That great group dynamic is also present in Abnett’s sequel to the Eisenhorn trilogy, the Ravenor trilogy. Although Eisenhorn is not a character in the Ravenor trilogy, his presence is felt and he makes an appearance in one of the two interconnecting short stories. Instead Ravenor follows the exploits of the horribly injured and incredibly powerful psychic Inquisitor Gideon Ravenor, the protégé of Gregor Eisenhorn. Ravenor and his associates (who include several characters from Eisenhorn) are up against a dangerous and fascinating villain (part Professor Moriarty and part Joker from Batman) who was trained by a secret society out to destabilize the Imperium.
Abnett just began his third and final Inquisitor trilogy with the novel Pariah: Eisenhorn vs. Ravenor, which pits the titular Inquisitors against each other and is told from the point of view of a character from the original Eisenhorn trilogy. It’s a fun mystery story that’s especially rewarding for fans of the first two trilogies.
Now that I’ve finished all the existing Inquisitor novels by Dan Abnett, I’m ready to explore some of the other Warhammer 40K books. There are sci-fi war stories featuring both the human soldiers of the Imperial Guard and the super soldiers of the Space Marines. There’s a series of novels that explores, the Horus Heresy, the intergalactic civil war that led to God Emperor’s downfall, and even a humor series featuring a character named Ciaphas Cain, a notoriously unreliable narrator and Commissar in the Imperial Guard.
So if what I’ve described sounds anyway intriguing give it a shot! Game fiction tie-ins can be just as exciting, powerful, and fun as original creations and the Warhammer 40,000 novels I’ve read have all been satisfying and highly enjoyable.
Dave Richards covers all things Marvel Comics for the Eisner Award-winning website Comic Book Resources and his book reviews and other musings can be found at his blog Pop Culture Vulture.
The greenskin species in 40K are Orks–not Orcs.
Got it DRickard, clearly the article has been affected by some heretical sorcery of The Warp. But really, do those foul xenos deserve the respect of a corrected typo? For the God-Emporer!
Ok, now that that’s out of my system. Glad to see Warhammer getting some love, though personally I prefer the Horus Heresy series, love the older timeline.
I’m not sure if you are into table top games Dave, but there is a pen and paper game built around the Inquisition that can be a TON of fun with the right kind of group of people. You never know who amongst you is the servant of chaos, lots of duplicity and out right lying. Some of the best times in gaming I’ve had while trying to figure out who at the table is the traitor.
Thanks CMorgan. I have some Warhammer board and card games that I really enjoy like “Space Hulk,” “The Hours Heresy,” and the recently released “Relic.” Plus I have the “Dark Heresy” RPG which I haven’t started up yet. I haven’t played the game you mentioned though. It sounds like a lot of fun.