Reading lists

12 new and classic dark academia books

Immersive, disturbing and heavy on nostalgia, the popularity of dark academia shows no sign of slowing down. These are the books that define the genre.

Katie Russell
Best dark academia books, including Bunny, Ninth House.

If you love reading gothic novels set in a boarding school or elite university, you’re probably already familiar with the term “dark academia”.

With billions of views, the #darkacademia hashtag – a veritable mood board of books, dark-hued preppy fashion, and oak-panelled libraries – has taken TikTok by storm. As a literary genre, it’s heavy on nostalgia with sombre overtones, romanticising life within educational institutions while depicting shady goings-on behind closed doors, and interrogating themes like greed, privilege, ambition, and hedonism. Think Brideshead Revisited, or the first 30 minutes of Saltburn.

Below, we’ve rounded up the best dark academia books – from beloved classics to exciting new releases – to help you decide what to read next.

The best dark academia books

Countless dark academia authors have been inspired by the modern classic The Secret History. Under the influence of a charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at a New England college discover a way of thought and life a world away from their banal contemporaries. But their search for the transcendent leads them down a dangerous path, beyond human constructs of morality.

Adam is an actor with an Oscar win at the forefront of his mind. He's just given the performance of a lifetime using "the method," a way for actors to dig into their darkest, most intimate traumas to bring their performances to life. But Adam's greatest traumas – his mother’s early death, his choice between a successful career and love – take him back to the secret he’s been keeping since drama school. And when that secret is revealed, it jeopardises everything Adam has worked for. This is an immersive tale of guilt, greed, and the pursuit of perfection, set against the backdrop of an elite but corrupt institution.

Chloe seems like a typical university student, but beneath her friendly exterior lies a psychopath who fantasises about killing her childhood friend. She is also one of seven students at her college to be selected for a secret study about people who lack empathy and can’t comprehend emotions. But when one of the students in the study is murdered, Chloe goes from hunter to prey. She must decide if she can trust her fellow classmates – and how far she's willing to go to solve the murder.

Felix is sure that he will die on his 18th birthday. The gruesome deaths of his three older brothers before him point to a curse, one doomed to stop anyone inheriting his family's incredible fortune. Felix doesn't care about his own life, but he does worry about his little brother Nick, so when an opportunity to break the curse appears, Felix chases it. Long-buried secrets take him from Jazz-Age New York to the far-flung wilds of the Yorkshire moors and back again, as he searches for a way to escape his dark inheritance.

Babel by R. F. Kuang (2022)

Oxford, 1836. Robin, an orphan from Canton, enrols in Oxford University’s prestigious Royal Institute of Translation – otherwise known as Babel. The tower and its students are the beating heart of the British Empire – using the gifts of magic and translation to in service of its colonization efforts. Robin believes Babel is a safe haven, but gradually realises that serving the Empire means betraying his motherland. But how can a student make a stand against a whole system? Babel offers a fresh perspective on the violence of imperialism, set against the dreaming spires of Oxford.

New York newbie and art aficionado Ann dreams of interning at the Museum of Metropolitan Art and is disappointed when she’s assigned to The Cloisters – a gothic museum which houses the Met’s mediaeval holdings. However, she quickly falls in with the quirky staff and indulges their theories, including the idea that ancient divination holds the key to predicting the future. When Ann discovers a 15th-century deck of tarot cards, she is caught in a dangerous game of power, ambition, and academic obsession – with fatal consequences.

Clare arrives at Edinburgh University eager to reinvent herself in a place where no-one knows her. When she meets the beautiful, intimidatingly rich Tabitha in her art history class, she knows they're destined to become friends and is drawn into her hedonistic circle. But this group is not what they seem, and by the time Clare understands what they’re capable of, it’s too late. Exploring obsession with an original and sinister edge, The Things We Do to Our Friends is a seductive feminist thriller about the battle between the greedy and the privileged.

Bunny by Mona Awad (2019)

Samantha is a scholarship student at a small New England university who usually prefers the company of her eccentric friend Ava to that of her classmates. But when she is invited to join a clique of girls who call each other “Bunny,” she is drawn into their sinister off-campus activities. As Samantha joins in the rituals, she plunges further and further into the group’s saccharine, lonely, and terrible world. Bunny blends sharp, witty satire with an exploration of the dark underbelly of female friendship.

El attends Scholomance, a school of dark magic where there are no teachers, no holidays, and friendships are purely strategic. There are only two means of escape: you graduate, or you die. El might not have many allies, but she is a powerful sorceress. Her unique strength allows her to fight monsters in the school, but she must learn to control her power or she could accidentally kill her classmates. If you spent your happiest days at Hogwarts, this is the series for you.

On a Monday afternoon, five students at Bayview High walk into detention but only four walk out alive. Simon, the creator of Bayview High’s notorious gossip app, is dead – and it wasn’t an accident. On Tuesday, he’d planned to post juicy reveals about his four fellow classmates, which makes each of them a suspect in his murder. This twisty murder mystery inspired an equally addictive series on Netflix.

If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio (2017)

Oliver has served 10 years in prison for a murder he may or may not have committed. As a student, he was part of a group of seven actors studying Shakespeare at a prestigious arts conservatory. It was a toxic environment of jealousy and competition that blurred fact and fiction and, ultimately, resulted in murder. So, when the police came on the scene, the group prepared for their greatest performance yet. This is an all-consuming story about obsession, academia, and the dark side of human nature.

The Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo (2019)

Alex dropped out of school as a teenager and fell in with the wrong crowd. Now 20, she is the sole survivor of a horrific, unsolved multiple homicide. While recovering in hospital, a mysterious benefactor offers her the chance to attend Yale, all expenses paid. But there is a catch: Alex must monitor the university’s secret societies, and their occult activities are revealed to be more sinister than she could have imagined. This dark, atmospheric fantasy novel uses magic to examine the relationship between privilege and the abuse of power.

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