Dark academia is an aesthetic, a mood, and a popular trend in the bookish interwebz. Since I first came across dark academia-themed booktube videos last fall, it feels like it is everywhere. According to a wiki dedicated to aesthetics, dark academia is an academic aesthetic that revolves around classic literature, self-discovery, and passion for knowledge. Mystery, danger, murder, and general criminality are some central themes that make up the ‘dark’ part. From what I’ve gathered, the trend also seems to have a lot to do with tweed, wire-rimmed glasses, and moody books set in academia.
If you want in on some atmospheric fall reading, dark academia might be a fitting sub-genre for you to check out. Below are some books set in or around a school, with gloomy themes. Some of these I’ve read, and the rest are on my TBR for the fall season.
They Never Learn by Layne Fargo
Wow, this one is a doozy. They Never Learn is a dual perspective novel that follows a professor and a student. Dr. Scarlett Clark is an English professor who (and this is not a spoiler) finds the worst man on campus, plans his demise, and murders them. She is skilled at all she does. The other character we follow is freshman Carly Schiller, who is simply trying to survive after escaping a problematic environment. This one is dark and twisty. You can read FBC Editor-in-Chief Natalia’s review of this book and her interview with the author here.
CW: Sexual assault, Murder, Sexual violence
Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé
In Ace of Spades two students, Devon and Chiamaka are newly-elected prefects at an elite academy. Soon after, they begin getting threatening messages from a mystery person with evil intentions, and they must team up to prevent bad things from happening. Sounds very intriguing, to say the least. I’ve seen so many excellent reviews on this one!
CW: Racism, Homophobia, Racial slurs
Sorcery of Thorns by Margot Rogerson
Okay, going to bend the rules here a little bit for this one. Sorcery of Thorns takes place in a library, where books are living and the main character is in charge of tending to them. When a murder takes place, all is thrown into chaos and it is up to the librarian heroine to set things right, because her life and the world hangs in the balance. This sounds so interesting to me! We’ll have to call this dark academia-adjacent, though, because it technically does not take place in a school.
CW: Violence, Death, Grief
Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
Galaxy “Alex” Stern is a freshman at Yale who gets caught up in secret societies, magic, mystery, and murder. Her past and present collide in irreparable ways, and she is forced to contend with forces beyond her control. Reviews on Ninth House are very mixed, but is definitely worth trying. I loved the protagonist because she is a traditionally unlikable character, and I also clicked with the message I believe Leigh Bardugo was sending in this one.
CW: Drug Use, Overdose, Loss of a Loved One, Rape.
Magic For Liars by Sarah Gailey
Magic For Liars follows a detective working on the case of a murdered faculty member at a magic school. This premise, and the fact that Sarah Gailey wrote this, is all I need to know to give this one a try this season. I’ve read a couple of their other books, and enjoyed each so my hopes are high.
CW: Body horror, Abortion, Cancer
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
I have not personally read Donna Tartt but The Secret History frequently comes up in discussions around dark academia, so it might not be a stretch to consider it a staple in this category. Apparently a very bad thing is announced right at the start of the book, and the rest is the events leading up to that. A group of pretentious students at a university falls under the influence of a classic literature professor, and begin thinking and living in a new way. After a while, however, things take a dark turn for evil.
CW: Murder, Alcoholism, Death