Dark academia is a subgenre of the literary fiction genre that contains darker, gothic vibes that usually involve some aspects of academia. Whether in a school setting or other type of establishment that revolves around academics, these books are moody and mysterious.
They are not thrillers, but sometimes there are thriller vibes present in the plot. I have a mixed relationship with dark academia. There are a couple of books I loved, but I couldn’t stand a few of them. That is not to say they are not well written, but the plotlines don’t always work out for me.
Here are seven of the best dark academia books you should read if you want to experience the genre.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
A well-lauded novel that won literary prizes, Never Let Me Go is a dark academia novel that is not easy to understand by everyone. The story takes place at Hailsham, an English boarding school. It seems like a great academic establishment at first glance. But there is an unspoken sense of alienation the students notice once they leave the school’s grounds. The way love is normalized by betrayal is hard to grasp, but the way the author describes the various emotions is unique to him. In this novel, Ishiguro also talks about those that don’t fit the mold and are ostracized, which may shock the readers. Nevertheless, if you like literary dark academia novels, you should read this one.
The It Girl by Ruth Ware
This is a mild version of the dark academia genre. While the story does transpire on a college campus, there are two timelines. Then, at college and now, when the narrator and the group of friends are adults. One thing to be noted with Ruth Ware’s writing style is that she often has an unreliable narrator in most of her stories, which is something not everyone enjoys. I personally like it, but at times it does get infuriating. This book is about April, a popular girl that gets killed after her first semester of college. The man who was originally convicted of her murder dies in prison, and a journalist has new information that may prove the killer is still at large.
Good Girls Lie by J.T. Ellison
This book is about the tenuous bonds of female friendships that take place at the Goode School, in Marburg, Virginia. The private school has all the dark academia vibes that one expects from this type of novel. It is perched atop a hill, it has a dark, forbidden tower, and the vibe is altogether gothic and mysterious. Everyone at the school keeps secrets, but the secret societies play by different rules. As long as they all pretend to follow the rules, everyone turns a blind eye to what really happens. But when one student turns up dead, will the school keep pretending that everything is okay?
The Atlas Six by Olivie Blake
This book’s premise is an Alexandrian society that consists of six talented magicians. Mysterious Atlas Blakely is the one to recruit the members that are to become the Atlas Six. The six members need to prove themselves to avoid elimination. They must spend a year together, after which time they will qualify for the initiation that will determine their fate. If they make it, they are promised a life of power, prestige, and interminable wealth. There’s an aura of magic about this book and the complex, deep relationships the members develop are a highlight of this book. A unique story that is well narrated, Atlas Six will transport you to uncharted territories.
The Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
Taking place at Yale University, one of the most prestigious Ivy League schools in the US, the book combines the activities of privileged students with that of magic and murder. Galaxy Stern, or “Alex”, the sole survivor of a murder spree, is trying to figure out why she was given a full scholarship by anonymous benefactors. But before long, she figures out the catch: she must keep track of the secret societies and their sinister, warped practices that take place on the school’s premises. But what she discovers is even more twisted than she could have imagined. So she wonders, is she really lucky, or she’s being used for sinister reasons unknown to her?
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
One of the oldest dark academia books that were ever written, The Secret History was originally published in 1992. Donna Tartt has a way of making a plot intriguing and hooks you in from the first page. The story is about Richard Papen, a college student at an Elite New England prep school, where he becomes part of a clique. The members of the clique are the only students of a morally corrupt classics professor. During their seminars, they are encouraged to think beyond the boundaries of normality, and before long, their lives get turned upside down because one of them gets murdered. But the point of the story is why not who did it?
The Cloisters by Katy Hays
Ann Stillwell arrives in New York City from Walla Walla for the summer under the impression that she will work as a curatorial associate at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Instead, by a stroke of fate, she gets transferred to the Cloisters, the gothic museum, and garden that is renowned for its medieval art collection. The researchers that work at this museum are all enigmatic and they all seem to have strange agendas. While studying the history of divination, Ann indulges in the researchers’ theories of fortune-telling. When she discovers a hidden deck of 15th-century tarot cards, her curiosity becomes an obsession. But she also discovers some darker truths that her colleagues worked very hard at keeping from her.
This list is a great start to this genre, in my opinion. There are lots more great books that I may mention in a future post, but you can dip your toes by reading at least one of these seven books first. Depending on your particular preference, they are all great examples of dark academia. If you read any of these, what did you think? Until next time, I hope you manage to read some great books my fellow bookworms!