A Shortlist of essential Horus Heresy reading
The Horus Heresy is a big series, consisting of 24 novels, a number of short stories and at least half a dozen audio dramas. One question that I’m frequently asked is how someone new to the series can catch up on all the events. Or more specifically, exactly which stories should be read. Now this isn’t a particularly straightforward answer, which probably won’t surprise anyone, given the complexity of the storyline. However I’ve spent some time considering the question and I have come up with what I believe is a list of the essential elements that must be read.
Before going any further though, I will state for the record that I recommend reading the entire collection (even the less regarded works) if you have the opportunity. There are great details, back stories and descriptions in all of the works, and they all add to the rich tapestry of the 30K universe. It’s also inevitable that some of the (in my not-so-humble opinion!) best novels wouldn’t make my list of ‘essential’ reading, and in fact none of the best short stories do, and if you only read the shortened list then you’ll be missing some real treats. You can see my earlier blogs on the top 5 novels here and top 5 short stories here.
Before Black Library started the heresy series, the Horus Heresy was firmly embedded in the history of Warhammer 40K, but the known details were limited to a few key events. And of these, even fewer had been covered to any extent. The Siege of Terra is the most well known and the only one to have significant coverage, and clearly this is going to be the culmination of the Heresy series. After this, the most well known events were the three main ambushes of the loyalist legions during the opening moments of the Heresy; the Iron Hands, Raven Guard and Salamanders at the Dropsite Massacre, the Blood Angels at the Signus Cluster, and the Ultramarines at Calth. It is these events that I consider to be essential to any Horus Heresy short list.
The early novels in the series set up the background to the heresy; a newly created Imperium of Man, full of optimism, dynamism and full of belief in the crusade to reclaim the lost colonies of mankind… and unknowingly destined for a cataclysmic fall. The first 3 novels work together to build towards the climax of the events on Istvaan III (where 4 traitor legions purge the remaining loyalist warriors from their ranks). All 3 would make my must read list.
The next novel, The Flight of the Eisenstein, also makes my must read list. There is some overlap between this and the earlier 3 novels, covering the build up to Istvaan III. More significantly for the short list, it also covers how the news of Horus’s betrayal reaches the loyalist forces and the Emperor on Terra. In my opinion, this is a key element of the story, not only in itself, but also because it frames the Imperium’s response… and therefore the next novels in the series.
The 5th novel in the series, Fulgrim, is also the 5th book on my shortlist. Much of the early part of the novel isn’t required reading. It covers the reasons why the Emperor’s Children legion, and their Primarch, decided to follow Horus, which in my opinion is interesting and nice to know about, but not essential. Where it is absolutely critical is during the later elements of the novel, which covers the Istvaan V campaign (more commonly referred to as the Dropsite massacre) in the greatest detail of any novel we have currently. As mentioned earlier, the Dropsite massacre is one of the signature events of the heresy, as it is where the full extent of the Heresy is revealed. From a strategic standpoint, it is this event that allows the traitor forces to gain the upper hand and therefore take the initiative within the Heresy.
At this point, my shortlist is looking more like the standard ‘list’ of novels! However, of the next 10 novels there is only one that makes the shortlist. These novels typically run concurrent to the first 5 novels, giving background detail, parallel story arcs and generally providing more context to the 31st Millenium. Most (possibly all) are worthy of reading, but few of them come close to making my essential short list. The one that stands out to me as being required reading is The First Heretic. I include this because it brilliantly book ends the entire period from the very beginnings of the Heresy to the events of the Dropsite massacre. The First Heretic is the story of the first Primarch to fall to Chaos (Lorgar, Primarch of the Word Bearers) and details how and why the heresy started. However Lorgar’s story develops by returning to Istvaan V, where it builds on the events covered earlier in the series in Fulgrim.
To me The First Heretic marks a clear dividing line which draws the early stages of the Heresy to a conclusion. Although unavoidable delays meant that Prospero Burns was released after The First Heretic, this book was originally scheduled earlier. Following these two novels, The Age of Darkness anthology is the 17th book released. From here on, the main themes of the books are set in the post-Istvaan heresy period, and therefore it moves into new territory for us as readers.
It is possible to consider everything from The Age of Darkness as essential reading. Whilst we may have heard of some of the events covered, there is little detail within the heresy lore. We also have little idea how the heresy will develop from here onwards, and therefore we don’t know which existing novels will be essential reading from a continuity persepctive for future novels. However not only is that playing it safe, it also doesn’t cut down the list to allow a new reader to easily catch up, which is really the point of this blog!
Of the remaining novels within the series, there are two that cover the signature events I talked about earlier in this blog. Know No Fear details the Word Bearers attack on the Ultramarines legion at Calth. Fear to Tread is the story of the Blood Angels being ambushed by a daemonic horde at Signus. I believe both should be read, partly because they’re great novels, partly because they are recently released anyway, but mostly because they complete the story of the major known events.
After this, I would leave it up to the reader as to when they join the series. The latest novel is Betrayer, which I reviewed here, is the 24th novel in the series. I wouldn’t call this essential reading based on my definition in this post. However I would recommend everyone gives it a go, as it is one of the best (if not the best) heresy novels to date. Of course, depending on how quickly you catch up, there may be a better point to join in the future.
- Horus Rising (1st novel)
- False Gods (2nd novel)
- Galaxy in Flames (3rd novel)
- Flight of the Eisenstein (4th novel)
- Fulgrim (5th novel)
- The First Heretic (14th novel)
- Know No Fear (19th novel)
- Fear to Tread (21st novel)
Of the novels I’ve missed out, I’m sure there are good arguments for including any or all of them in this list. Certainly I expect the omission of the novels A Thousand Sons and Prospero Burns (effectively a duology dealing with the Space Wolves being sent to punish the Thousand Sons for disobeying an edict from the Emperor) to be controversial. However (on the basis that cuts have to be made) in my mind it is enough to know this conflict happened without having to read the details.
Well, that’s all from me folks. As ever, if you have any comments about anything I’ve written, please drop me a message on here or on twitter @Marcoos14 . I know I always say this, but I genuinely am interested in whether you think I’ve included anything that could be left out, or missed anything that you consider a must read!
All the best,