Almost 30 years ago, Donna Tartt’s debut novel, The Secret History, was published and a new sub-genre of literature was born: dark academia. In recent years, dark academia has expanded past the pages of books and has emerged into a full-blown cultural aesthetic (think: cardigans and tweed blazers, fall weather, vintage filters and a deep and abiding love of Gothic architecture). With it has come a resurgence of interest in books with dark academic vibes. These books fit into a slew of genres from fantasy to mystery to fairy-tale retellings to historical and more, but all have academic settings, and all are dark and twisted.
Whether you’re a first-timer who has never dipped a toe in the tweed-filled world, or a seasoned pro who has read The Secret History innumerable times, check out our list of the 10 best dark academia books.
Described by the author as an emotionally challenging book to write, Zhao tackles the hyper-competitive environment of Manhattan high school through the lens of Asian-American students. When a student is murdered, an anonymous source starts casting suspicion on her four former best friends who are all harboring secrets that could affect their futures. Zhao has another YA dark academia coming out in 2022 (The Lies We Tell), this time set on a college campus, so be sure to pick that one up, too!
Not to be confused with Chloe Gong’s smash hit YA novel of the same name, Nemerever’s debut is described as The Secret History meets Call Me By Your Name and, according to the author’s note at the end, is loosely inspired by the 1924 Leopold and Loeb case (head over to Wikipedia for more info on that). Set in 1970s Pittsburg, TVD follows two university freshmen as they meet and fall into a relationship that is by turns obsessive, destructive and violent. It’s not an easy read, but that’s sort of par for the course in dark academia, isn’t it?
Dark, tragic and full of vengeance, this Japanese thriller takes place shortly after teacher Yuko Moriguchi’s four-year-old child dies on the grounds of the middle school where Yuko teaches. Initially thought to be an accident, readers learn from the jump that the death, in fact, was not. It was murder, and Yuko is out for revenge. Two years after the book released in Japan, Confessions was made into a film and shortlisted for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
A dark fairytale retelling. A queer, female cast of characters. A boarding school in Switzerland. A murder mystery at its core. Grimrose Girls has all of this and more, and if the fact it recently hit the New York Times YA Paperback List is any indication, readers are eating it up. When a student is found dead on campus, it’s ruled a suicide by the local police, but her four best friends disagree and set out to discover what really happened. There’s a sequel coming in 2022, so be sure to pick this one up sooner than later!
Although some might say Deonn’s YA debut is more fantasy adventure than dark academia, it checks off an awful lot of boxes in the genre: it’s set on a college campus, there’s a (magical) secret society, and, of course, murder. After the death of her mom, Bree leaves home for UNC-Chapel Hill, joining a residential program for high school students, but her first night there witnesses an attack which entangles her with the aforementioned magical secret society. A deftly plotted, beautifully written story that tackles heavy topics like grief and intergenerational trauma, Legendborn is not to be missed.
Bardugo’s adult debut is set at her real-life alma mater, Yale University, and spins a tale of academic life laden with ghost and gore and trauma. Rumor has it that this is a series, and Amazon has a TV show based on the book in works, so be sure to check out this one sooner than later. Netflix has already adapted her Shadow and Bone YA series, but Ninth House is fully adult. Dark academia plus dark fantasy plus violence makes for a very heavy read, so check trigger warnings before picking it up.
Loaded with enough Sapphic dark academic vibes to satiate even the most rabid genre reader, Lee’s gorgeous poetic prose pulls you in front the first lines and doesn’t let you go until the final shocking twist. A year after her girlfriend’s untimely death, Felicity Morrow returns to her creepy old boarding school and moves back into her dorm, a dorm that’s rumored to be haunted by the ghosts of the Dalloway Five—former students who were allegedly witches. Felicity is ultimate unreliable narrator, and readers are left wondering what, if any, of the supernatural happenings in the book are real. Content warnings abound, so please take a look at the author’s website for them before picking the book up!
Regularly recommended as the next best thing to The Secret History (although some say it’s even better), Rio’s literary masterpiece revolves around a tight-knit group of Shakespeare-obsessed college thespians whose friendships fracture to deadly consequences. The book opens as the main character is released from prison after serving 10 years for a murder he may or may not have committed, and then flashes back to tell the tale of what really happen all those years ago.
Described as Gossip Girl meets Get Out, this YA thriller focuses on the only two Black students at an elite private school who start receiving threats from an anonymous source after they’re selected as class prefects. Àbíké-Íyímídé deftly intertwines timely social themes like institutional racism with a twisty, propulsive plot, making for an unforgettable read. This is the author’s debut novel (hard to believe, because it’s incredible) and we cannot wait to see what she does next.
No list of dark academia books would be complete without The Secret History, the gateway book into the genre for most readers. A beautifully written, atmospheric, intelligent thriller which has stood the test of time (it came out way back in 1992), Tartt’s debut novel has it all: an elite college, a tight-knit group of intellectuals with a passion for the Classics, secrets and lies… and murder. The perfect place to start for those new to the genre.
The Taking of Jake Livingston by Ryan Douglass (YA), Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth (adult).
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Liz Lawson is the author of “The Lucky Ones, a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2020, and the upcoming YA mystery The Agathas, which she co-wrote with NYT Bestselling author Kathleen Glasgow. She lives outside of Washington DC with her family and two bratty cats.