In the realms of literary genres, few have risen as rapidly in popularity as ‘dark academia’. This niche, yet captivating category, has been turning heads and capturing imaginations worldwide. In some ways it’s more of an aesthetic than anything else, and as such we find dark academia books that straddle multiple genres. From fantasy to mystery, thriller to romance, while there are certain genres (like fantasy and gothic) that naturally lend themselves to dark academic tales, this is one genre that has few boundaries. 

If you’d just like the list of what to read, skip down to my picks for the best dark academia books to devour. But for those interested in the meaning of dark academia, and why dark academia books are garnering such a fervent following, read on…

The Essence of Dark Academia

At its core, dark academia is an aesthetic and thematic exploration that combines elements of classic literature, the pursuit of knowledge, and an often shadowy, gothic undertone. Set against the backdrop of academic institutions like universities or boarding schools, dark academia books usually weave intricate narratives around intellectual curiosity, classical art, and often, a mysterious or suspenseful plot.

The visual and thematic elements of dark academia are unmistakable. Think tweed jackets, candle-lit study rooms, classical architecture, and an overall moody, introspective ambiance. This setting becomes a fertile ground for narratives that explore complex themes such as morality, desire, and the human condition.

Why the Rising Popularity?

The surge in popularity of dark academia books can be attributed to several factors. Firstly, there’s a romanticisation of the academic setting – the idea of seeking knowledge and wisdom, combined with the mystique of old libraries and scholarly debates. This intellectual pursuit, intertwined with elements of mystery and darkness, strikes a chord with readers who are enamoured by the blend of the cerebral and the suspenseful.

Moreover, dark academia books strongly resonate with contemporary themes. The genre often delves into the exploration of power dynamics, the corrupting influence of ambition, and the ethical dilemmas faced by its characters. This mirrors the real-world complexities and moral ambiguities that are increasingly prevalent in today’s society.

A Community and Aesthetic

Beyond the books, dark academia has burgeoned into a broader cultural phenomenon. It’s not just a genre; it’s a lifestyle and aesthetic embraced by a community of enthusiasts. Social media platforms are abuzz with dark academia-inspired fashion, décor, and photography, creating a visual and cultural identity that goes beyond the pages of the novels.

Personally, I love the dark academia aesthetic and I’m in the process of redecorating my office based on it. One wall is now black. Another will soon be wall-to-wall bookcases. Also black. The dark, the books, the broody-yet-cosy atmosphere. It is simultaneously inviting, comforting, and yet wholly in keeping with my somewhat misanthropic and introverted personality. Add to this the allure of the vintage manuscript, typewriters, writing and drawing paraphernalia, history, mythology, and so much more, and honestly I’m a little baffled as to why it’s taken me so long to lean into it.

My reading tastes have certainly been canting that way for a very long time. For as long as I’ve been reading, in fact, since my childhood favourites included Sherlock Holmes and Frankenstein, not to mention Harry Potter (not strictly dark academia books, but certainly leaning in that direction!).

Dark Academia Books: Key Titles

For those eager to dive into this intriguing world, a plethora of titles await. Classics like The Secret History by Donna Tartt are often seen as quintessential dark academia, but contemporary titles are also making waves. A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik, If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio, and The Atlas Six by Olivie Blake are just a few examples of books that embody the genre’s essence (check out a complete list of the best ones to read below). 

While some are inevitably more popular than others, each novel offers a unique blend of intellectual intrigue, moral complexity, and often, a touch of the supernatural or the sinister.

The Future of Dark Academia

As the genre evolves, it continues to push boundaries and explore new themes. From addressing contemporary social issues to diversifying its character representation, dark academia is not static. It is a genre that is as dynamic and evolving as the academic pursuits it romanticises.

Dark academia books are more than just a literary trend; they are a reflection of a deeper yearning for knowledge, beauty, and understanding in a complex world. The genre offers a unique escape into worlds where intellect and intrigue collide, making it a fascinating field for both avid readers and cultural enthusiasts alike. Whether you’re a newcomer or a seasoned fan, the world of dark academia is sure to offer something that piques your curiosity and indulges your love for the mysterious and the intellectual.

The Best Dark Academia Books To Sink Your Teeth Into

dark academia books sherlock holmes

Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

In some ways, the tales of Sherlock Holmes created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle can be seen as a prequel of sorts to dark academia books as we know them today. The dark academia aesthetic is known for its emphasis on classic literature, a passion for learning, and an appreciation for the arts and history, often presented with a moody, dark, and mysterious vibe. Sherlock fits quite well into this aesthetic.

The stories are set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and revolve around the intellectual pursuits of detective work. They feature a blend of mystery, intellectual challenges, and a Victorian-era London setting, which aligns with the dark, scholarly, and classic elements of dark academia. Additionally, the character of Holmes himself, with his keen intellect, eccentric personality, and often introspective and brooding demeanor, embodies many of the qualities admired in the dark academia community.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

A classic work of gothic fiction, this novel tells the story of Victor Frankenstein, a young scientist who creates a grotesque but sentient creature. It explores themes of ambition, humanity, and the repercussions of playing God. It may not have been considered a dark academia book at the time of its publication but, as with Sherlock, the genre has fully embraced classical literature that fits the mood, and this certainly does!

dark academia books frankenstein

Bunny by Mona Awad

The novel revolves around Samantha, an outsider in her MFA program, who gets entangled with a clique of girls who call each other ‘Bunny’. It’s a darkly humorous and surreal tale about friendship, belonging, and the power of imagination.

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

This fantasy novel centres on Zachary Ezra Rawlins, a graduate student who discovers a mysterious book that leads him to a hidden world of lost cities, lovers, and a vast underground library.

The Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

This fantasy novel centres on Galaxy “Alex” Stern, a freshman at Yale University. She becomes involved with Yale’s secret societies that practise dark magic, and investigates a murder, unravelling a host of supernatural and sinister secrets.

Hell Bent by Leigh Bardugo

The sequel to The Ninth House, this novel continues the story of Alex Stern as she deals with the aftermath of the events at Yale. She sets out on a mission to rescue a friend from Hell, facing dangers from both the living and the dead.

Babel by R.F. Kuang

Set in a richly imagined world of magic and languages, Babel is a rich dark academia book that follows the story of a young scholar at the Royal Institute of Translation in Oxford. The novel delves into themes of colonialism, translation, and magical practices, blending historical fiction with fantasy elements.

The Atlas Six by Olivie Blake

In this novel, six uniquely talented magicians are selected to join a secret society, the Alexandrian Society. They compete for permanent membership, unravelling secrets, and navigating complex relationships in a world of magic and intellectual intrigue.

I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai

This book centres around Bodie Kane, a film professor and podcaster who revisits her past and the unsolved murder of her roommate when she returns to her New Hampshire boarding school to teach a course. The story delves into themes of memory, truth, and justice.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

A contemporary classic, this novel tells the story of a group of classics students at an elite New England college who become involved in a murder. It’s a tale of beauty and horror, blending Greek tragedy, mystery, and psychological thriller elements.

Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh Chou

This dark academia novel focuses on a Taiwanese American woman’s journey of self-discovery and chaos at a college campus. It’s a satire on privilege and power in America and touches on issues of identity and complicity.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Set in a dystopian England, this novel follows the lives of Kathy and her friends, who grow up at a mysterious boarding school called Hailsham. As they slowly learn about the true nature of their existence, they must confront deep questions about humanity and love.

Portrait of a Thief by Grace D. Li

This book tells the story of Will Chen, a Harvard student who is roped into leading a heist to steal Chinese artworks from Western museums. It explores themes of identity, history, and the meaning of art.

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

Set in the Scholomance, a school for the magically gifted where failure means certain death, the book follows El Higgins, a student with powerful dark magic trying to survive until graduation. It’s a story of friendship, survival, and challenging the status quo.

The Ivies by Alexa Donne

A thriller set in an elite prep school, where five girls will do anything to get into Ivy League colleges. When one of the girls is found dead, the story unfolds into a mystery of ambition, competition, and dark secrets.

Ghosts of Harvard by Francesca Serritella

This novel follows Cady Archer, a freshman at Harvard, who is trying to uncover the truth about her brother’s death, which occurred on the same campus. The narrative weaves themes of mental illness, family secrets, and the supernatural.

Belladonna by Anbara Salam

Set in the 1950s, this novel tells the story of two friends, Isabella and Bridget, at a prestigious art history school in Italy. The story explores the complexities of their friendship and the secrets that lie beneath the surface.

Hex by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight

This novel follows Nell Barber, an expelled Ph.D. candidate, who becomes obsessed with her advisor, Dr. Joan Kallas. As Nell dives deeper into her research on poisons, the book explores themes of desire, obsession, and the blurry line between passion and toxicity.

A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee

Set in the Dalloway School, a boarding school with a history of witchcraft and mysterious deaths, this thriller follows Felicity Morrow, who is drawn into a dark past involving the Dalloway Five – girls rumoured to be witches who died on school grounds.

Wilder Girls by Rory Power

This novel is a feminist retelling of “Lord of the Flies.” Set in an all-girls boarding school quarantined due to a mysterious disease, it follows the story of three friends trying to survive and uncover the truth behind their confinement.

The Library of the Unwritten by A. J. Hackwith

In this fantasy, the Library of the Unwritten in Hell is where unfinished books reside. The story follows the Librarian, Claire, who must ensure that the characters of these unfinished stories don’t escape into the real world.

One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus

A murder mystery set in a high school where five students walk into detention, but only four walk out. The book follows the investigation and reveals secrets each student is hiding, turning them all into suspects.

Tripping Arcadia by Kit Mayquist

Lena takes a job with a wealthy Boston family, the Verdeaus, to support her struggling family. But as she uncovers the family’s dark secrets, she plans revenge for their role in her family’s downfall, blending elements of Gothic fiction and family drama.

Real Life by Brandon Taylor

The novel is a deep dive into the life of Wallace, a gay Black man from Alabama in a predominantly white Midwestern university. Over a weekend, the book explores themes of race, sexuality, and the challenges of finding connection in a setting where you feel like an outsider.

We Wish You Luck by Caroline Zancan

This novel follows a group of MFA students at a secluded university who plot revenge against a professor who has wronged one of their own. It’s a story about friendship, ambition, and the lengths to which people will go for justice.

Other People’s Clothes by Calla Henkel

The story revolves around Zoe Beech, an art student in Berlin, who becomes entangled in a suspenseful web of surveillance, obsession, and art. The novel delves into themes of grief, creativity, and the intensity of female friendships.

The Swallows by Lisa Lutz

This novel is a dark, satirical thriller set at a New England prep school. The story revolves around Alexandra Witt, a new teacher who uncovers a secret misogynistic online forum run by the school’s male students and the ensuing gender war that unfolds.

They Wish They Were Us by Jessica Goodman

Set in the affluent town of Gold Coast, Long Island, this murder mystery follows high school senior Jill Newman as she investigates the murder of her best friend Shaila, questioning whether the right person was convicted for the crime.

The Truants by Kate Weinberg

A coming-of-age story set in a university, this novel follows Jess Walker, who becomes fascinated with her charismatic professor, Lorna Clay. The story delves into themes of obsession, betrayal, and the allure of Agatha Christie’s work.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

This novel is a blend of a coming-of-age story and a murder mystery, narrated by Blue van Meer after her final year at a North Carolina high school. It combines a complex plot with a unique narrative structure, resembling a course syllabus.

The Taking of Jake Livingston by Ryan Douglass

This YA horror novel follows Jake Livingston, a high school student who can see the dead. Jake’s life takes a terrifying turn when the ghost of a school shooter starts to haunt him, threatening his sanity and safety.

The Secret Place by Tana French

Part of the Dublin Murder Squad series, this crime novel centres around the murder of a teenage boy at a girls’ boarding school. Detectives Stephen Moran and Antoinette Conway investigate the case, which delves into the secretive and complex world of teenage girls.

Leda and the Swan by Anna Caritj

This novel is a suspenseful mystery set at a university where a student, Charlotte, disappears after a campus party. The story is told from the perspective of her friend, who becomes obsessed with finding out what happened.

If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio

This novel is a dark academic thriller about a group of Shakespearean actors at an elite arts college. When a cast member is found dead, the line between performance and reality blurs, and a mystery unfolds, exploring themes of art, obsession, and betrayal.

The Cloisters by Katy Hays

Set in the mysterious world of a museum, “The Cloisters” is a suspenseful tale that revolves around the study of tarot and art history. The novel blends elements of mystery, romance, and the supernatural, set against the backdrop of the world of art and antiquities.

Our Share of Night by Mariana Enriquez (Translated by Megan McDowell)

A dark and atmospheric novel, it delves into the supernatural and occult, exploring a father-son relationship in Argentina. The story spans decades and deals with themes of love, loss, and the quest for immortality.

Ink Blood Sister Scribe by Emma Törzs

This book is centred around the themes of storytelling, sisterhood, and the power of words. It explores the bond between sisters and the way stories and writing can shape reality and personal identity.

Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

Set in a mysterious and exclusive university, this gothic novel follows Ines, a student who becomes entangled in the school’s seductive world. The story explores themes of isolation, the pursuit of knowledge, and the dark side of academia.

These Violent Delights by Micah Nemerever

This psychological thriller explores the intense and destructive relationship between two college students in the 1970s. The novel delves into themes of obsession, desire, and the moral boundaries of love and friendship.

The Maidens by Alex Michaeledis

This psychological thriller is set in Cambridge University, where a series of murders occur among a secret society known as The Maidens. The protagonist, a group therapist, becomes involved in the investigation due to personal connections and uncovers dark secrets.

Vita Nostra by Marina Dyachenko & Sergey Dyachenko (Translated by Julia Meitov Hersey)

A blend of fantasy and dark academia, this novel follows Sasha Samokhina as she is compelled to attend a mysterious college where she studies metaphysical transformation. It’s a story about self-discovery in a surreal academic setting.

Vicious by V.E. Schwab

This novel explores the blurred lines between heroism and villainy through the story of two college friends, Victor and Eli, who gain extraordinary abilities and become adversaries. It’s a dark tale of ambition, revenge, and superpowers.

Four by Four by Sara Mesa (Translated by Katie Whittemore)

Set in an isolated, elite boarding school (the perfect setting for dark academia books!), this novel presents a microcosm of society where power dynamics and control are explored. The story becomes increasingly unsettling as the outside world’s threats permeate the school’s walls.

The Promised Neverland by Kaiu Shirai and Posuka Demizu

This manga series follows the story of children living in a seemingly idyllic orphanage, who uncover a horrifying truth about their existence and must plan a dangerous escape to survive.

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

A blend of gothic novel, historical fiction, and thriller (everything you can possible want from a dark academia book!) this novel follows a young woman’s search for her missing father and the truth about Vlad the Impaler. The story spans generations and crosses Europe, delving into dark history and vampirism.

In My Dreams I Hold A Knife by Ashley Winstead

This thriller revolves around a college reunion where Jessica Miller is confronted with her past. Six friends reunite, but dark secrets and a murder from their college days resurface, leading to a suspenseful unravelling of truth and redemption.

Dark Things I Adore by Katie Lattari

Set in the art world, this novel is a psychological thriller about revenge and obsession. It intertwines the stories of a tragic summer camp in 1988 and an art student’s plot in 2018 to avenge those wrongs, revealing dark secrets and manipulative games.

All These Beautiful Strangers by Elizabeth Klehfoth

This novel is a mystery involving Charlie Calloway, a student at an elite boarding school, who investigates the disappearance of her mother. The story delves into family secrets, elite society, and a dangerous game played by a secret society at her school.

They Never Learn by Layne Fargo

This thriller follows English professor Scarlett Clark, who has a secret agenda of punishing the worst men at Gorman University. It’s a story of revenge and justice, where Scarlett’s carefully laid plans may be disrupted.

The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman

A novel set in a girls’ boarding school in the Adirondacks, where Jane Hudson returns as a teacher and confronts her traumatic past involving the deaths of her friends and a series of chilling events that echo past tragedies.

Ace of Spades by Faridah Abike-Ikimide

In this dark academia thriller, two black students at an elite school become the targets of anonymous attacks that reveal dark secrets and systemic racism. The story is a compelling narrative about identity, resilience, and fighting against discrimination.

Legendborn by Tracy Deonn

This YA fantasy novel combines Arthurian legend with Southern Black culture. As dark academia books go, this one is genuinely legendary. Bree Matthews enters a secret society at UNC-Chapel Hill and discovers a magical world of demons, knights, and her unique heritage and powers.

Promise Boys by Nick Brooks

Set in an urban charter school, the book explores the murder of the school’s principal. Three boys, known as the ‘Promise Boys’, are prime suspects and must work together to prove their innocence and uncover the truth.

House of Marionne by J. Elle

This book is centred around a prestigious boarding school and a secret society. It delves into themes of privilege, power, and the complex dynamics within elite educational institutions.

A Study In Drowning by Ava Reid

This novel is a dark academia story involving a mysterious boarding school, where students face dangerous challenges and dark secrets lurking beneath the surface. The story combines elements of mystery, suspense, and the supernatural.

All That Consumes Us by Erica Waters

This novel delves into a story of family, curses, and secrets. Set against the backdrop of the Appalachian Mountains, it follows the Beaumont family, who are cursed to be consumed by a demon unless they feed it the bones of their dead. The narrative explores themes of familial bonds, sacrifice, and the haunting nature of past sins.

The Library of Shadows by Rachel Moore

In this dark academia book, the protagonist discovers a hidden library that holds books about every human life. As she navigates this mystical world, she learns about the power of stories and the shadowy figures who seek to control them. The novel combines elements of fantasy and mystery, exploring themes of destiny, knowledge, and the power of narrative.

The Forest Demands Its Due by Kosoko Jackson

Set in a small town surrounded by a mysterious forest, this story revolves around the town’s dark history and the forest’s ominous presence. It’s a tale of suspense and horror, where the characters must confront ancient secrets and the forest’s demands to protect their community.

An Education In Malice by S.T. Gibson

This novel is a dark academia book set in a prestigious boarding school. The story focuses on the intense and sometimes sinister relationships among the students, exploring themes of ambition, rivalry, and the dark underbelly of academic excellence. It’s a narrative that delves into the psychological complexities of young adults in a high-pressure environment.