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After playing a lot of Warhammer 40K: Space Marine, I suddenly have a huge urge to read more about that universe.

It seems this story is quite old and lots of books have been written about it, and things can be overwhelming for someone new.

What should I read and in what order?

I'm interested in the lore of the game, who is the emperor, how did this war come to be, who are the orcs, where do they come from, why is there a fascination with the emperor as if he were God?

This is exciting for me!

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    The history of the Orks is very cool. I would advise you to start with any of the 40K army codexes - with the Space Marine codex being the starting point. Even if you aren't interested in the tabletop game, all the fluff is there. Unfortunately, though, I think this question is off-topic for Gaming SE and likely to get closed. – Jason Berkan Oct 19 '11 at 5:22
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    I agree with @JasonBerkan, but this would be on-topic at sci-fi.SE, as per their FAQ: Franchise/series reading or viewing order – fredley Oct 19 '11 at 9:32
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    I would seriously recommend reading one of the core rule-books of the game (3rd or 4th edition would be the best, I think), as the story/fluff elements in there are specifically designed to introduced newcomers to the universe. They offer a little bit about all the factions and an overview of the fictional history. Then move on to the novels, as other have suggested. – evilsoup Jul 5 '13 at 16:16
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Games Workshop maintains a publishing arm called the Black Library. (Named after the Eldar repository of knowledge in the lore itself, in case you wonder why some books talk about it directly).

There are a large number of novels in the Black Library for you to choose from, broken down into either stand alone books, parts of long running series or trilogies. Different books focus on the different races, with the most prevalent being Space Marines and Imperial Guard, plus whoever they happen to be fighting against. There is no correct reading order outside of any particular series, it is dependent on what you want to read about within the universe.

For the series with the greatest number of races involved in it, I would recommend the Ciaphus Cain series of novels. For a fairly detailed overview of the history of the Imperium, the civil war and why things are as ruined for humanity as they are, I'd recommend The Horus Heresy, Collected Visions, which is not a novel.

Here is a selection of books, categorised by protagonist, with a brief overview of what each will tell you and who the antagonists are. There are other books available, but I'm not going to detail anything I can't guarantee will be in the series:

The Inquisition

  • The Eisenhorn trilogy, by Dan Abnett
    • Follows the career of the Inquisitor Eisenhorn. Focuses on him and the characters he interacts with, includes a few aliens, but mostly chaos antagonists. Better, but not necessary to read before the Ravenor trilogy.
  • The Ravenor trilogy, by Dan Abnett
    • Follows the career of Eisenhorn's former apprentice. Similarly focusses on him and the people he works with, with some aliens, but mostly chaos antagonists.
  • Atlas Infernal, by Rob Sanders
    • Follows the party of renegade Inquisitors Czevak and Klute. Deals with the Eldar and the Black library, as well as chaos marines of the Thousand Suns legion and several daemon worlds.

Imperial Guard

  • Gaunt's ghost series, [currently 14 books, with (I believe) 2 left to be released)], by Dan Abnett (with the exception of The Sabbat Worlds, which is a short stories collection)
    • This is set before most of Warhammer 40k, (Set roughly around 41,776), but not a lot is different. This gives a very good introduction and overview into the Imperial Guard, primarily following one unit as it is sent through war zones to fight traitor guard and chaos. It also touches on the culture of other guard regiments they interact with.
  • Ciaphus Cain series, by Sandy Mitchell
    • This series is not always written in chronological order, but this doesn't matter too much. It is the memoirs of the hero of the Imperium, commissar Ciaphus Cain, as edited by the Inquisition. The series follows his attachment to Imperial Guard regiments and one Space Marine chapter. A variety of antagonists are featured, including: Tyranids, Genestealer cults, Chaos, Orks, Necorns, Tau and renegade inquisitors.
  • Cadian Blood, by Aaron Dembski-Bowden
    • Follows a unit of Cadians (Imperial Guard elite regiments) and an Inquisitor as they attempt to deal with a planet gone rogue, due to the presence of the Death Guard (chaos space marines).

Space Marines

  • The Horus Heresy series [as of June 2018 at 49 books, variety of authors]
    • Set 10,000 years before warhammer 40k, this series covers humanities war to conquer the galaxy, the build up to the civil war (The Heresy) and the 7 years of civil war that led up to the attack on Earth for the throne. This covers (in great detail) the backgrounds to most of the 9 Space marine legions and the 9 traitor legions, with some books covering run ins with Daemons, Eldar, Orks, assassins and the start of the Imperial religion.
  • The Horus Heresy, Collected Visions (a hardback book, not a novel)
    • Summarises the entire build up to and events of the Horus Heresy. Far less detail than the novels above, but gives a broader summary (and is finished).
  • Space Marine battle novels
    • This is a series of stand alone books by various authors, detailing battles in the history of various chapters of Space Marines that are not connected to each other.
  • Ultramarines novels, by Graham McNeil
    • Series following Captain Uriel Ventris of the 4th company of the Ultramarines. Series features antagonists from the necrons, Dark Eldar, Tyranids, Chaos Marines, Daemons and Grey Knights so far.

Chaos Space Marines

  • Night Lords trilogy, by Aaron Dembski-Bowden
    • Follows a squad of Night Lords as they fight against the Imperium, features antagonists from Space Marines, humans, Eldar, Deamons and other Chaos Marines.
  • Iron warriors series, by Graham McNeil
    • Follows the warlord Honsou of the Iron Warriors legion, with his warband as they assault a world held by the Imperial Guard and the Imperial Fists Space marine chapter.
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There's a HUGE number of background novels.

This is a user-made Amazon list of them, in rough publication order. It's only a partial list, there is at least one more part.

I'd think that, from your question, you'd enjoy the Horus Heresy. It deals with the background of the Emperor (may He live eternally, to save us from Chaos), the creation of the Chaos Marines, and a lot of backstory on the Space Marines and their chapters.

The fluff portions of the codexes are also a good place to start. You should be able to find them in half-price book stores fairly easily (if anyone around your area plays) from old editions. Just keep in mind that canon is flexible, and codexes even from the last edition may ACTUALLLY be misinformation planted by traitorous forces to lead you astray.

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    I agree with this answer in general and specifically that the Horus Heresy is a fantastic place to start, especially if you are interested in the origins of Chaos and who the Emperor is. I would also refer the original question asker to an older question on stack exchange that has thoughts on where to start a journey into 40k: scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/554/… – Upgrayedd Oct 21 '11 at 0:53
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I also read up on some stuff while playing the game and afterwards...

I usually found my answers on this Wiki: http://warhammer40k.wikia.com/wiki/Warhammer_40k_Wiki

It's not as detailed as ready the official material (army codexes), but for me it was just fine.

It is some very interesting stuff :)

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I would suggest a few books/omnibus-es to begin with.

Eisenhorn and Ravenor (two Inquisition books, WONDERFUL reads) and Titanicus (About the Legio Titans. Another wonderful read.) all three by Dan Abnett. Dan Abnett is a freaking genius. Alot of people go on about Gaunt's Ghosts, but personally i don't like the ghosts novels very much. His Inquisition books and Titanicus, however, are some of the best books I've ever read.

For Space Marines: Dawn of War omnibus (The story of the blood Ravens). I forget who it's by, but you can find it on amazon easily enough. Soul Drinkers omnibus (the sotry of the traitor/loyalist Soul Drinkers chapter). This one's by Ben Counter.

Also an excellent one to pick up is Enforcer omnibus, by Matt Farrer. This one follows an Adeptus Arbites officer (think, the police of 40K. More skilled than Guard, and almost on Astartes/Space Marine levels of tactics/discipline.)

There are also a few Sisters of Battle books around, though I've never read them (on my to-do list).

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What should I read and in what order?

I'm interested in the lore of the game, who is the emperor, how did this war come to be, who are the orcs, where do they come from, why is there a fascination with the emperor as if he were God?

If you want that info then you have to read the books in a specific order. If i was you i would start reading Space marines codex to get you going and put some stuff into perspective.

After that i would read a bit of the HORUS HERESY books as the Emperor and all of the myhtical universe actors are mentioned in some way in the books. The emperor is described in some, the primarchs and the founders of different Space Marine Chapters also.

After that is is a case of preference.

Imperial guard novels - to get a feel of the organisation and different units

Space marine battles - to see the variance in different Space Marine Chapters

Eisenhorn trilogy/Omnibus followed by Ravenor trilogy/omnibus - To see what the inquisition is all about. It gets mentioned a lot in books as beeing the big bad wolf and theese books give a good insight what the Inquisitors do and how they go on about it.

Gaunts Ghosts - if you love the imperial guard or just like the writing style od Dan Abnett

Space Wolf - if you want to dig a bit more into the creation of Space Marines etc. there are 7 books as far as i know and the first 2 describe how a mortal gets transformed into a Space Marine.

Ciaphas Kain novels - Should be read last as they fil last chronologically speaking from a writers perspective. ( it is ca. 125.M42 when the author gets Down and writes some of the older books )

After that it is really your perogative. Depending on what you like as there are a LOT of books and background material out there.

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Whatever you do, start with Eisenhorn (or maybe even Inquisition War) or Gaunts Ghosts, or something else. Save the Horus Heresy for later. (The HH series is so much the better read with a good background knowledge).

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    Or, rather, foreground knowledge. Depends on your perspective. ;) – NotMe Jan 9 '12 at 21:51
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There has been a rather similar question over at rpg.SE titled "How can I get a good background on the Warhammer 40K universe?"

Since your question seems to imply (to me, at least) that it's not primarily detailed storylines (ie novels) that you're looking for but a concise, overall picture (who's who, what's what, when did what happen etc), I dare be bold enough and paste my answer for the abovementioned question here:

It might sound strange, but Wikipedia and/or the 40k section of the (unofficial but rather thorough) Lexicanum seems like a good starting point to get to know the setting. :)

Note that I've added further emphasis to Lexicanum, which, with it encyclopedic entries can most probably satisfy your initial curiosity and help decide which areas and factions you find most intriguing. Once you got that, you can get started with the relevant sourcebooks and novels for additional detail and immersion. :)

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I also found my way into the Warhammer 40k universe via the Space Marines game. It is such a fantastic mythos... I recommend starting with the Ultramarines omnibus by Graham McNeil. It's a good read and the Ultramarines are a good chapter to start out with because they are sort the poster children for what the Space Marines represent. Other Chapters are more interesting, but the Ultramarines constantly seek to epitomize the basic standards of the Adeptus Asartes. They are also the Chapter represented in the Space Marines game. There are so many great books it's hard to say where to go next. I would actually avoid the Horus Heresy for now as it is a very complex mythology that provides origins for the world - but lacking a basic familiarity with the current lore it may prove to be a bit overwhelming.
They actually just released a book called Space Marines which contains a series of short stories. You may want to start there. This will give you a broad spectrum of chapters and authors.

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I will second the massive omnibus "Space Marines" short story collection. It collects three earlier SM short story collections plus a few of newer stories. If you've never read the earlier colections it's a fantastic place to start. I'm 80% through it after getting it for christmas and then getting distracted by the Horus Heresy novels (just started #5). Both are excellent. The 40k wiki sites (i tend towards Wikia mostly because its mobile optimized and i can read them on the go though Lexarcanium is just as good) are great for background without shelling out for the codexes or game rules if you aren't going to play.

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