I can’t decide whether I enjoy this literary category so much because it’s a reminder that my school experience could be so much worse (i.e., more dangerous) or because it’s a reminder that my school experience could be so much more exciting (i.e., more dangerous). Maybe some of both?
But either way, back-to-school season puts me in the mood for nonfiction, classics, and dark academia. So today I’m bringing you a list of favorites from this last subgenre (?), which I hope you’ll enjoy regardless of whether you’re currently a student.
- The Secret History by Donna Tartt is, according to many, the OG dark academia novel and a modern classic. It’s a long read, at 500-600+ pages depending on the edition, and it’s a wild one: Latin and murder and parties at a New England college.
- Truly Devious (trilogy) by Maureen Johnson — you’ve probably seen this one; maybe you’ve read my series synopsis of the first book. If you’re into student detectives, boarding schools for quirky prodigies, and cold murder cases, this is a must-read. Also, apparently there’s a standalone addition coming out next year??
- The Secret Place by Tana French may have been my introduction to dark academia; the title was floating around Tumblr along with the phrase There’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls. To me it read as a little younger than the other Dublin Murder Squad books (probably because it does center on teenage girls), but it’s still a suspenseful character-driven investigation.
- Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo hardly needs me to help hype it up, but here it is anyway. You’ve almost certainly already heard about it, so I’ll just note that this is very much (New) Adult, not YA; please check the content warnings first because there is a lot of graphic, potentially very disturbing content.
- The Furies by Katie Lowe centers on the themes of fury and revenge, on intoxicating and toxic teen-girl relationships (particularly between friends), on four girls secretly studying history, mythology, and the occult with their mysterious art teacher.
- If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio is all about the drama: both in the Shakespearean plays sense and in the friend group dynamics sense, and the complex intersection of the two. These characters are not nice people, but man oh man are they believable.
- The Likeness by Tana French is also part of the Dublin Murder Squad set (like The Secret Place, above), but I’m still including it since each book has a standalone plot and focuses on different characters. Here the school setting is secondary, but the tight-knit PhD students/murder suspects have plenty of Intellectual^TM discussions so it is very much academia-focused.
- Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality by Eliezer Yudkowsky is a fanfic, yes, but hear me out. It’s such a well-thought-out reimagining of the characters and magic system, engagingly unique storylines intertwined with nods to the original series. The writing style and Harry’s switch to a coldly logical rather than warmly empathetic character may not work for everyone, but after a few chapters’ adjustment time I was totally won over. Plus, the entirety of HPMOR and lots of bonus content are available for free!
- Villains (series) by V.E. Schwab might not be a perfect fit for this category, but I think the systematic science aspects and the flashback college scenes qualify it for academia, and thematically it is indubitably dark. (Also the Frankenstein allusions made me think of school, but that might just be a me thing.) There’s a reason this is one of Schwab’s most popular series, even among readers who don’t love her other works: compelling characters and superpowers and ethical dilemmas are a winning combination.
- Do you like dark academia?
- Have you read any of these books? What did you think of them?
- What are some of your favorite dark academia stories?