Silicon nitride is one of the major structural ceramics that has been developed following many years of intensive research. It possesses high flexural strength, high fracture resistance, good creep resistance, high hardness and excellent wear resistance. These properties arise from the processing of the ceramic by liquid phase sintering and the development of microstructures in which high aspect ratio grains and intergranular glass phase lead to excellent fracture toughness and high strength. The glass phase softens at high temperature and controls the creep rate of the ceramic. The purpose of this review is to examine the development of silicon nitride and the related sialons and their processing into a range of high-grade structural ceramic materials. The development of knowledge of microstructure–property relationships in silicon nitride materials is outlined, particularly recent advances in understanding the effects of grain boundary chemistry and structure on mechanical properties. This review should be of interest to scientists and engineers concerned with the processing and use of ceramics for structural engineering applications.