20 Dark Academia Books You’ll Be Totally Obsessed With
Pull out your favorite tweed jacket and cozy up in your reading chair with one of these unputdownable dark academia books
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The dark academia books trend
If you’ve spent any time on social media lately, you’ve probably stumbled on photos and videos with a dark academia vibe. You know the aesthetic: moody lighting, autumnal settings and fashion that’s prep-school cool. But while the trend is relatively new, the literary genre goes back decades—even centuries. Still, the past several years have seen a resurgence in dark academia books, and the literary world is richer for it.
You’ll find some of the best fiction and cozy mystery books in this subgenre, from Sherlock Holmes to modern classics like The Secret History and recent bestsellers like The Atlas Six. They’ll suck you into worlds of academic achievement, introduce you to characters with sharp wits, toss you mysteries or magic (or both) and make you long for a spot in a quiet library where you can read undisturbed.
To come up with our list of the best dark academia books, we scoured shelves for bestsellers, award-winners and books with stellar reviews. And, of course, we made sure all fit the definition of dark academia books. The result? Some of the best books and of all time.
What is the dark academia book genre?
There isn’t one clear definition of the dark academia book genre, and trying to define it can lead to intense debates. But hey, intellectual pursuits are on theme, so we’ll give it a try. As the name implies, “dark academia” books are those that tend to (but don’t always) have an academic background—like at a prestigious university (say Harvard or Oxford) or a boarding school—where something sinister or strange, like a murder or fantastical magic, usually happens.
Dark academia books can slot neatly into a handful of genres. You’ll find fantasy and mystery books, literary fiction, LGBTQ books, books for women and even romance novels with dark academia vibes. Not sure where to start? We’ve rounded up the best dark academia books for everyone, from those just dipping their toes into the genre to longtime fans.
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1. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Still unclear on what makes a book dark academia? Read The Secret History. Donna Tartt’s 1992 tome has become the blueprint for dark academia books, with fans even coveting the appropriately academic clothing the author wears in photos. The story revolves around six friends who attend a small liberal arts college in Vermont and study the classics under a charismatic professor. Also, they commit murder. The Secret History became an instant classic and is still finding new audiences three decades later. The intellectual storytelling and themes of morality also make it an ideal novel for book club discussions.
2. The Atlas Six by Olivie Blake
This 2022 New York Times bestselling novel has a backstory almost as compelling as its plot: Author Olivie Blake (a pen name for Alexene Farol Follmuth) couldn’t find anyone to buy her fantasy novel about six aspiring magicians who are forced to live together (like a magical Real World) and compete for just five spots to gain admission into a secret society that holds the world’s knowledge. So she self-published. Soon, fans began touting the novel on #BookTok. Not only did a publisher snap up the story in a bidding war, but the book is being made into a series for Amazon Prime. Does The Atlas Six live up to the huge hype? Yes. Here are some other BookTok-approved books that are totally worth the hype.
3. If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio
Shakespeare meets the whodunit in M.L. Rio’s 2017 dark academia book. Set in a conservatory, If We Were Villains is divided into five acts centered on seven actors who live, breathe and betray in Shakespearean proportions. The suspenseful novel opens with the main character, Oliver, being released after serving 10 years in prison for the murder of his classmate. But what really happened that fateful night? The dialogue, action and setting all make for the perfect darkly academic read. Bonus: Right now, it’s available to read for free on Kindle Unlimited.
4. Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
This 2019 adult debut from New York Times bestselling young adult author Leigh Bardugo cemented Bardugo’s place as a must-read in adult fiction. Ninth House centers around Galaxy (“Alex”) Stern, who can see ghosts, or “grays,” as she calls the sometimes benign, sometimes dangerous spirits. Healing and reeling from a traumatic past, Alex gets the rare opportunity to go to Yale, but only if she keeps an eye on the secret societies that run the school—and the world. Both the writer (a Yale alum herself) and protagonist are wicked smart, offering keen observations about privilege and the patriarchy.
5. The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
The 2019 sophomore novel from The Night Circus author Erin Morgenstern is a bookworm’s dream: a lush, fantastical book about books. The Starless Sea may take place in our world—Zachary Ezra Rawlins is the son of a fortune-teller and a student at a Vermont college (very dark academia)—but there are worlds and worlds of stories that’ll suck you in. The primary plot revolves around Zachary, who finds a mysterious book in the library that tells a story from his childhood that nobody else could ever know. He soon finds his way to an ancient underground library filled with magic that some are trying to keep secret and others are hoping to destroy. Through gorgeous prose and intertwined stories reminiscent of fairy tales, Morgenstern reveals a world readers will want to savor.
6. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Called the bible of dark academia books, the 1891 classic book by Oscar Wilde is perennially entertaining and horrifying. The Gothic novel (Wilde’s only one) is about a young man, Dorian, who trades his soul for eternal youth and beauty. While Dorian stays endlessly young decade after decade, the portrait of him hung in his attic grows older and crueler until he finally makes it stop. The cautionary tale still resonates centuries later with themes of morality, evil and death.
7. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
A finalist for the National Book Award and short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, Hanya Yanagihara’s 2015 novel A Little Life is a powerful, emotional story. But know what you’re getting into before you pick it up: One reviewer called it “the saddest book I have ever read,” and indeed, you’ll probably cry. In this novel about four male friends who attended a small school in Massachusetts together, the protagonist, Jude, suffers terrible childhood trauma. As the flashbacks play out (trigger warning for sexual abuse), it’s the enduring friendships of the group that help balance the book’s heartbreak and darkness with a promise of hope and survival.
8. Bunny by Mona Awad
Like a lot of other dark academia books, 2019’s Bunny by Mona Awad takes place at a university—in a prestigious New England MFA program, to be exact. Scholarship student Samantha Heather Mackey disdains the cliquey girls she calls the “bunnies.” That is, until she befriends them and falls down a dark rabbit hole of twisted friendships, magic and deadly rituals. Need another reason to pick up this tale of female friendship and power? Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, tweeted her love for the book, saying, “Jon Swift + Witches of Eastwick + Kelly ‘Get In Trouble’ Link + Mean Girls + Creative Writing Degree Hell! No punches pulled, no hilarities dodged, no meme unmangled! O Bunny you are sooo genius!”
9. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
This 2005 modern classic is a wonderful read for lovers of both historical fiction and vampire books. In it, the studious narrator stumbles upon an old book with the word “Drakulya” on the cover. So begins the search for clues about Vlad the Impaler (on whom Dracula is based) and information about how his dark history entwines with her own family secrets. The exciting history and gorgeous locales make this a vibrant read you won’t forget.
10. Ghosts of Harvard by Francesca Serritella
This 2020 novel has all the makings of the best dark academia books: an academic setting (Harvard, of course), paranormal activity (ghosts!) and a murder mystery to boot. Ghosts of Harvard follows Cady, whose schizophrenic brother committed suicide at Harvard the year before. Trying to understand what led to her sibling’s demise, Cady enrolls in Harvard too, and armed with her brother’s notebook of dark writings, she endeavors to understand what really happened—even if it costs her her life. If you’re the type of reader who likes book recommendations based on TV shows and movies, consider this: Fans of The Dead Poet’s Society will want to pick up this title.
11. A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee
This 2021 young adult novel takes readers to the Dalloway School, an old boarding school in the Catskills where, years before, five students died mysteriously—possibly because they were witches. Felicity Morrow has taken a year off school after the untimely death of her girlfriend. Now back at Dalloway, she gets caught up in the scary search for the truth about why so many Dalloway students end up dead.
12. A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik
“I decided that Orion Lake needed to die after the second time he saved my life.” So reads the first line of this New York Times bestselling YA novel from Naomi Novik. Published in 2020, A Deadly Education is the first in a trilogy set at Schoolmance, a black magic school for wizards that’s full of secrets and danger. There, Orion Lake has made a name for himself by saving his fellow students from the dark forces of Schoolmance, evil spirits of “maleficaria” that feed on the magic energy of the student body. Protagonist Galadriel (“El”) Higgins—a half-Welsh, half-Indian sorceress with a famous healer for a mother—is less than impressed. She’s also well suited to surviving the place … if she doesn’t kill everyone in the process. The genius cliffhanger ending will have you devouring the next installment and eagerly awaiting the third, one of the most anticipated books of September 2022.
13. Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas
Catherine House is a fictional university set in rural Pennsylvania that seems strange from the very beginning. For one thing, tuition is free—and what is American college life without student debt? And the exchange for that generosity and the academic prowess that’s promised is steep. Every accepted student has to cut all ties to the past: no friends and family can visit, and no personal belongings are allowed. In this 2020 book by Elisabeth Thomas, wild child Ines yearns for a home yet finds shocking discoveries in these hallowed halls. When you’re done with this one, check out these other books by phenomenal Black authors.
14. Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé
Dark academia has been (rightfully) accused of being Eurocentric, which is why Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé’s 2021 YA novel, Ace of Spades, reads like such a breath of fresh air. At the Niveus Private Academy, two students are being framed by an anonymous bully who goes by the nickname Aces. It’s up to our two protagonists to stop Aces and save their reputation before things get even uglier. Smart and suspenseful, this stands out among dark academia books for tackling important topics like institutional racism while also being wickedly entertaining.
15. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
We had to wait 16 years for another novel by Susanna Clarke (of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell acclaim), but Piranesi is well worth the wait. Published in 2020, the novel is a fantastical take on the dark academia genre. The protagonist, Piranesi, lives in a labyrinthine house of endless halls and impossibilities (think indoor oceans), keeping a record of his explorations of his contained world. He’s alone, except for an occasional visitor he calls The Other, and if that all sounds very mysterious to you, that’s because it is. Piranesi is at once a fantasy novel and a compelling mystery that’ll have you working to discover Piranesi’s real identity and how he came to live in the house. The surprising ending will make you wonder what is real, what is magic and what is created when we’re trying to survive.
16. Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
We’ll admit, more than a few people have wondered if J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter books are actually considered dark academia books, but the answer is yes. Think about it: Much of the story centers on learning, and the later books get fairly dark in tone. Plus, if you’ve ever seen the movies, you know the series fits the aesthetic visually, no matter the wizard’s robes. Start with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, first published stateside in 1998.
It’s the children’s book that launched the worldwide phenomenon and introduced our favorite characters, including Harry Potter, Ron and Hermione, Hagrid and Dumbledore. It’s nostalgic and good fun to reread (see if you can find the hidden messages this time around!), and there’s no better place to indulge your love for dark academia than the imagined Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
17. Confessions by Kanae Minato
Buckle up for a book that’ll grip you from the start and stick with you long after you turn the last page. Kanae Minato’s Confessions, published in 2008 in Japan and 2014 in the United States, was an international sensation that was later turned into a movie. This gripping tale of tragedy and revenge starts as a lecture: Speaking to middle school students she teaches, Yuko Moriguchi delivers a lecture that ultimately accuses two students of killing her 4-year-old daughter and sets her revenge plans in motion. When you’re finished—you’ll fly through it—check out these other books by Asian and Asian American authors.
18. Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
This 2020 bestseller, which the New York Times lauded as “Lovecraft meets the Brontës in Latin America,” is an instant classic that’s being made into a Hulu TV series. Set in 1950s Mexico, Latinx author Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic centers on fiercely independent Noemí Taboada, who’s tasked with saving a cousin who is being poisoned and held against her will in the family mansion. Gothic horror with a twist (the book pulls in elements of feminist fiction and dark academia), the thriller is, as NPR noted, “an inspired mash-up of Jane Eyre, The Mysteries of Udolpho, Dracula, Rebecca and The Blob.”
19. Legendborn by Tracy Deonn
An immediate New York Times bestseller and winner of the Coretta Scott King–John Steptoe Award for New Talent, Tracy Deonn’s 2020 YA novel Legendborn centers on Bree Matthews, who is reeling from her mother’s accidental death. Looking for escape, she enrolls in a teen program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where an incident unlocks Bree’s magic and the truth about what really happened to her mother. With its university setting, a secret society at the core, diverse characters and a mystery to pull you along, this is a dark academia book that’ll appeal to teens and adults alike.
20. A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
You’ll no doubt find yourself itching to visit the hallowed halls of Oxford’s Bodleian Library by the end of the first chapter of Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches, the 2011 start to her All Souls book series. When scholar Diana Bishop comes across an alchemical manuscript long thought lost, she’ll have to tap into the witchy powers she’s pushed aside to solve a mystery that holds the supernatural world in its grip. And she’ll have to do it alongside a vampire geneticist who’s as tempting to her as she is to him. Harkness is a scholar of history herself, bringing realism and depth to the story.