Dark Academia is one of those exciting subgenres in the world of books. It sounds self-explanatory but also holds a bit of mystery to it as well. Simply put, for a book to fall into the dark academia genre, it must have certain criteria. It usually has something to do with academia but doesn’t necessarily have to be set in a school. It’s more the aesthetics involved with higher learning.
The dark part in “dark academia” refers to the aura, imagery, and fashion. It has a huge similarity to goth culture. Not only that, but the characters themselves are also what you consider to be corrupt individuals. They are… dark and not the typical hero/heroine type of protagonist we see in other genres.
There is some debate about where the dark academia genre started. Some trace its inspiration back to a 1992 book by Donna Tartt called The Secret History. It grew with the help of the internet, bringing people in the wider community together.
Naturally, there is some criticism of the genre. The two biggest criticisms deal with its focus on the upper class (those with money, basically) and the fact that it is not remarkably diverse, as many main characters are white. While there has been more inclusion over the years compared to when dark academia books first jumped into existence, much more needs to be done.
Despite this, “dark academia” remains quite an intriguing genre, and in this article, we’ll show you the best book recommendations you should pick this year!
21 Best Dark Academia Books of 2023
1. The Secret History by Donna Tart
Donna Tart’s The Secret History is considered to be the book that started it all for the dark academia genre. This classic book was published originally in 1992 but continues to attract fans today. Set at an elite college in New England, a group of students finds themselves attracting the attention of their classics professor.
These students are considered to be strange by the rest of their classmates. Smart, but very odd.
They are thrilled to find someone to understand them, so it’s easy to understand why they fall under their professor’s influence. However, they find themselves questioning their very own morals when betrayal hits their small group.
If you are new to the dark academia genre, this is the best book to start with before moving on to others.
2. The Atlas Six by Olivia Blake
Olivia Blake’s The Atlas Six tells us of a group of six academics who are chosen to join The Alexandrian Society every decade. These chosen are supposed to care for lost knowledge and make sure it continues to exist. People who manage to get into such a society are set for life.
In this new decade, new candidates have been recruited to join The Alexandrian Society. The six candidates recruited by Atlas Blakely include:
- Reina Mori
- Parisa Kamali
- Callum Nova
- Tristian Caine
- Libby Rhodes
- Nicolás Ferrer de Varona
All of these recruits have some type of power and influence in the world. To even get a chance to reach initiation, they all must live together for one year. After this year, five of them will be able to join The Alexandrian Society.
What will happen to the one who doesn’t join? Well, they will promptly be eliminated.
3. Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House tells the story of new Yale student Galaxy Stern or Alex, as she is often called. She was raised in LA by her hippie mom, and despite the loving environment, Alex has gotten into some trouble. She’s had bad relationships and jobs and was even the only survivor of a terrible crime.
After waking up in the hospital following the attack, Alex is given a full ride to Yale, which surprises and confuses her. She accepts and then heads to New Haven, where she has a job to do. Alex wasn’t given a full ride to Yale just to learn. Instead, Alex has to keep an eye on the comings and goings of Yale’s mysterious societies.
It’s a job she never quite expected to come into her life and one that is more sinister than she could ever imagine.
4. A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik
Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education focuses on a magic school for magically-gifted students. The school is known as Scholomance, and to say it’s a deadly school is an understatement. You have no teachers, friendships, or holidays. Even grades aren’t the main thing on the student’s minds. They are more focused on trying not to die until they graduate.
The two main rules include not walking the halls alone and being aware of the monsters everywhere at the school.
A new girl named El is prepared for the environment at the school. She is immensely powerful, and this power could easily take out the monsters that lurk in every corner of the school. However, she could also kill her fellow students in the process, which makes everything much more complicated.
5. Babel, Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R.F. Kuang
R.F. Kuang’s Babel takes us to 1828. Our main character is a Chinese brit who goes by the name of Robin Swift, and he’s had a difficult life. When he was young, cholera took his loved ones, which left him an orphan.
After being brought to London by Professor Lovell, he trained in Latin, Chinese, and Ancient Greek. He did this with the purpose of enrolling at Oxford University in the Royal Institute of Translation, or Babel as it is often called. This is not only a huge center for translation but also magic.
Robin is thrilled to be at such a place and to have a chance to learn. However, he soon finds himself torn between his Chinese heritage and being raised in Britain when Britain starts a war with China.
6. Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé
Ace of Spades, one of the best dark academia books in recent years, is set at Niveus Private Academy. It’s your typical private academy where money talks… and builds the entire building. Students are considered to be part of the perfect elite, but this starts to change when an anonymous texter named Ace starts revealing people’s secrets.
Two students at the school named Devon and Chiamaka end up in Ace’s sights. For Devon, this ends up with his private pictures being made public. Chiamaka views Devon as a rival, so in a way, this action does end up benefiting her.
However, no one is safe from this devious anonymous texter, including Chiamaka. They need to figure out who is behind Ace before this game they are playing gets much more dangerous.
7. If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio
M.L. Rio’s If We Were Villains tells the story of Oliver Marks. Ten years ago, he was convicted of a murder he may or may not have committed. On the day he is released from prison, Detective Colborne, who put him in prison, I might add, wants to know what happened the day of the murder.
Before Oliver started serving his 10-year prison sentence, he was studying Shakespeare at an art school. At the time, Oliver and his friends took turns playing all the different roles in the plays. It’s something they have become particularly good at. However, when one of the friends is found to have died, fantasy becomes a reality.
What happens next will have you on the edge of your seat and leave you wondering if Oliver is guilty or convicted of a crime he didn’t commit.
8. The Maidens by Alex Michaelides
Alex Michaelides’ The Maidens is about a young woman named Mariana who is sure about one thing. Edward Fosca, a Greek Tragedy Professor at Cambridge University who also has a secret society of female students known as The Maidens, is a murderer.
Mariana works as a group therapist by day, but when her niece Zoe informs her that one of the Maidens is dead, she immediately becomes suspicious. She was once a student herself, so she has some insight into the environment at Cambridge University.
While Edward Fosca has a good alibi, Mariana is certain that he is to blame. When another girl is murdered, Mariana becomes more convinced he is at fault. She will stop at nothing to prove him guilty, no matter what it takes and whose lives she ruins—even herself.
9. Bunny by Mona Awad
Mona Awad’s Bunny focuses on Samantha Heather Mackey, who remains an outsider despite her best intentions. She is in an MFA program at Warren University and is on a scholarship, putting her on the outs from the other students. Samantha particularly dislikes this group of wealthy girls that call each other Bunny.
Then, out of the blue, Samantha is invited to join the Bunnies’ Smut Salon. Despite her dislike of them, Samantha jumps in and even ditches Ava, her only friend at the school. Everything seems fine until Samantha starts getting involved in these off-campus workshops, where they conjure more than just friendship and memories.
Soon Samantha finds herself unable to separate her relationship with these Bunnies and Ava, who has always been there for her more than the Bunnies ever had been.
10. Vita Nostra by Marina Dyachenko & Sergey Dyachenko, Julia Meitov Hersey (Translator)
Vita Nostra is a translation of a Ukrainian novel centered around a young woman named Sasha Samokhina, who is vacationing with her mother at the beach. After she meets Farit Kozhennikov, Sasha finds herself performing strange tasks for him, and whenever she completes one, she gets a cold coin.
By the end of her summer, she moves to a village and uses the gold to join the Institute of Special Technologies. Her mother disapproves, but Farit wants her to go, so she will go. This strange school is not like most. Books can’t be read, and if the students fall out of line, their families are punished rather than them.
Sasha is beyond afraid of the changes in not only herself but also around her. Still, she is unable to walk away from her new life.
11. Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson
Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious should be on your TBR list if you want to read the best dark academia books. The book brings us to Ellingham Academy, which sounds very elite. It’s a private school in Vermont for all sorts of people who will do great things.
Albert Ellingham was the one to create the school, and soon after he opened it, his wife and daughter were kidnapped. The only clue was a strange riddle, signed “Truly, Devious.”
In modern-day, true crime buff Stevie Bell is fascinated by this case. During her first year, she intends to solve the case of Albert Ellingham’s missing wife and daughter. At least, this is her intention until it seems that “Truly, Devious” has made a surprise return.
Stevie is terrified but curious about the return of Truly Devious. Is it someone who has taken up the mantle, or is it the one from all those decades ago?
12. Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas
Elisabeth Thomas’ Catherine House is about Catherine House, located deep in the woods of Pennsylvania. It’s a liberal arts school that is very strange on the surface. However, despite the strangeness, it’s had many famous graduates over the decades.
Those who get accepted have their tuition, room, and board paid for, but in exchange for this, they have to stay in Catherine House for three years without contact with the outside world. This includes TV, family, friends, and even clothes.
Despite this, Ines is excited to study at such a prestigious university. She joins and is put in a room with a woman named Baby, who becomes more than her roommate. They become friends, and when a tragedy occurs that involves her new friend, Ines is immediately suspicious.
She no longer feels as confident about her enrollment in this strange school and wonders what secrets it hides.
13. The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea is about Zachery Ezra Rawlins, a graduate student in Vermont. When he finds a mysterious book, he discovers it contains all types of strange tales. One of these tales is from his childhood, shaking him to the very core. Why would his childhood be recorded in this random and mysterious book?
This leads him to go on a journey to find out why this is so. After finding clues that include a bee, key, and sword, he ends up going to a masquerade party in New York. The strange journey leads him to this ancient library hidden far below the earth’s surface!
The library seems to exist outside of time and reality itself. Once he meets Mirabel, the protector of the library, and Dorian, a handsome but shifty man, Zachary ends up on a strange journey that will lead to many discoveries.
14. A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee
Victoria Lee’s A Lesson in Vengeance is set at Dalloway school, which is in the Catskill mountains. It used to be Felicity Morrow’s school until her girlfriend died. A year later, she’s back and ends up being put in a dormitory that is said to be haunted by the Dalloway Five. Rumors say that these five girls, who all died mysteriously, were witches.
Before losing her girlfriend, she was interested in such things, but now she just wanted to focus on her studies. This changes with the arrival of Ellis Haley, the new girl. Ellis is a famous novelist at just the tender age of seventeen, so she is known to the student body well before arriving.
When Ellis asks Felicity for help researching the Dalloway Five because she wants to write a book on them, she says yes. What comes next will put not only Felicity’s life in danger but also everyone at school.
15. Confessions by Kanae Minato
Kanae Minato’s Confessions tells its story through different voices, which always offers a unique experience. Yuko Moriguchi is suffering at the moment. She recently called off an engagement to a good man and believes her young daughter Manami is the only thing she has left in her life.
Things change when an accident occurs at Yuko’s middle school. She instantly resigns because Yuko has given up and is ready to leave the teaching world altogether.
On Yuko’s last day, she is determined to give one last lecture to her entire class. The tale she tells her students leaves them in a state of shock and is one they certainly won’t forget.
16. Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth
Emily M. Danforth’s Plain Bad Heroines first started in 1902. Flo and Clara are two students at Brookhants School for Girls, and not only do they have an obsessive love for each other, but they also love Mary Maclane, a bestselling author. They love her so much that they even started their private club called The Plain Bad Heroine Society.
The two girls meet in an apple orchard and have all sorts of discussions. However, bodies start appearing at the orchard with a copy of Mary Maclane’s book beside them. Eventually, the school is shut down.
Our story then takes us to a hundred years later. Merritt Emmons has written a book about the ordeal, and now it’s going to become a movie. It stars celebrity actor Harper who plays Flo, and former child star Audrey Wells playing Clara.
It all seems straightforward until they start shooting the movie at Brookhants, causing the past and present to collide.
17. In My Dreams I Hold a Knife by Ashley Winstead
Ashley Winstead’s In My Dreams I Hold a Knife is about the dreaded college reunion, and what makes this reunion different is that a decade ago, a student named Heather was murdered. One of the students attending the reunion is Jessica Miller. She is returning to Duquette University with her head held up high on her shoulders.
She remembers her close friends at the time, and they were all affected by the unsolved mystery of Heather’s death in different ways. Still, she wants to put all this behind her and move on. The problem is not everyone wants to let this go. They want Heather’s murder to be solved and her murderer to be caught.
All this and more come to light when Jessica and her friends reunite, making for the most interesting college reunion of all time.
18. They Never Learn by Layne Fargo
Layne Fargo’s They Never Learn is a novel that brings us the curious and compelling story of Scarlett Clark. She is an English professor at Forman University by day and a murderer at night. Every year, like clockwork, she searches for the worst man at the university and plans his death. The problem with this year is the school is starting to look into the deaths, leaving her in limbo.
Scarlett goes so far as to put the charms on Dr. Mina Pierce, the woman in charge. It works… until it doesn’t.
At the same time, Carly Schiller is a freshman at Forman and is thrilled to be away from her abusive father. After her roommate and friend, Allison, is sexually assaulted at a party, Carly becomes obsessed with revenge… something she has in common with Scarlett Clark.
This is an intriguing tale and one of the best dark academia books, where revenge fantasies become a reality.
19. The Truants by Kate Weinberg
Kate Weinberg’s The Truants is a mysterious and contemporary story focused on Jess Walker. She is a young student who falls in love with Alec, a journalist in exile, and Lorna, a literature professor. Jess is as naïve as they come, given she is a first-year student. Yet, she finds herself drawn to both these people, who also happen to be great storytellers.
In her story, Jess experiences the trials and tribulations that come with life, as well as betrayal at her university campus. It leads to what one can only describe as a tale that will have your stomach in knots.
This novel is an excellent addition to the dark academia genre. It was only published in 2019, so it still has plenty of time to make a great impact on readers. Consider giving it a read if you want to enjoy a dark academia novel with a seductive twist.
20. Vicious by V.E. Schwab
V.E. Schwab’s Vicious is about college roommates Victor and Eli. Despite their sometimes dislike for each other, they were very much alike and shared many of the same experiences during their senior year. This includes dealing with supernatural events.
When trying to prove a thesis that aims to show that someone could develop special abilities under the right conditions, things don’t go as planned. The novel then shifts to a decade later and shines the light on Victor, who has broken out of prison. He is on his way to find Eli while being aided by a young girl with great ability of her own.
At the same time, Eli is determined to get rid of all superpowered people except for the woman who works at his side. Once the two men finally do see each other again, sparks will fly… and not in a good way.
21. They Wish They Were Us by Jessica Goodman
Jessica Goodman’s They Wish They Were Us is the final entry on this list of the best dark academia books, and it takes us to the Gold Coast up in Long Island. Jill Newman lives in a perfect town with perfect friends and perfect life, but we all know that looks can be deceiving.
When Jill was a freshman, her best friend, Shaila Arnold, was murdered by her boyfriend on the beach. He confessed, and that was it. Jill tried her best to move on. She is now in her senior year and in the Gold Coast Prep, a not-so-secret ‘secret’ society that brings awesome parties, high grades, and admiration from the school.
However, things become complicated when Jill starts getting text messages that claim Graham didn’t kill Shaila Arnold, and someone else did. This rocks Jill to her core because she had spent the past three years thinking he was at fault.
Having no choice but to look into it, Jill is determined to figure out who killed Shaila. If Graham didn’t do it, then her best friend’s killer is still out there walking free. It’s something she cannot accept.
Which Dark Academia Books Will You Read in 2023?
And there you go, all you book lovers out there! This brings us to the end of our article featuring the best dark academia novels available for you to read. Some of you may not have even known what this genre is… and that’s okay! There are so many different genres and subgenres that it’s impossible to be able to know about all of them.
Still, now that you know about the existence of dark academia books, you know exactly where you can start. This is where our list can help!