Discover the moody and ominous world of dark academia books, where intellectual pursuits and imperfect human nature converge in hallowed school halls.
This list of the best dark academia books aims to please everyone, with a varied list including romance, fantasy, classics, YA, and other novels set in school and exploring dark themes.
I’ve curated it from my own personal favorites, as well as the ones that top my “to be read list” each September and October, when it’s the perfect time of year to dive into them. I’m slowly making my way through all the best dark academia books of all time.
First, I will answer frequently asked questions about dark academia books, then I will share my top 3 picks. Lastly, I will give you details on all the top picks, so you can quickly and easily decide what to read next.
Frequently Asked Questions
Dark academia books take place at a school that is most often prestigious, gothic, and/or exclusive. Their storylines blend the good nature of intellectual pursuits with the darker side of human nature, including moral dilemmas, violent acts, forbidden love, power struggles, and the like. This mix often results in narratives that are thrilling and mysterious.
Dark academia books are often liked for being thrilling, suspenseful, mysterious, dark, nostalgic, revealing, and even otherworldly. Readers also enjoy the school setting, which can bring out the duplicitous nature of students, professors, and administrators as they face ethical questions in real life.
Dark academic books blend scholarly pursuits with the imperfections of human nature, and they usually fall under the fiction genre. They are often thrillers, mysteries, or suspense novels, but they can also span a variety of sub-genres including fantasy, young adult, and romance.
Top 3 Dark Academia Books
First, if you’re extra curious or in a rush, below is a quick, shoppable list of all the books that made the list.
- Ace of Spades
- Atlas Six
- Catherine House
- Ghosts of Harvard
- Good Girls Lie
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
- If We Were Villains
- I Have Some Questions For You
- In My Dreams I Hold a Knife
- The It Girl
- The Lying Game
- The Maidens
- My Dark Vanessa
- Never Let Me Go
- Ninth House
- Old School
- One of Us Is Lying
- The Plot
- The Secret History
- A Separate Peace
- They Wish They Were Us
- The Truants
Details on All the Best Dark Academia Books
What are some good dark academia books?
Ace of Spades by by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé
Finalist for the American Library Association’s William C. Morris Debut Award
Ace of Spades caught my attention for its diversity, which can be hard to come by in dark academia books, along with its recognition by the American Library Association.
At a private academy, Devon and Chiamaka become “prefects” in the race for valedictorian. However, an anonymous cyberbully called “Aces” starts threatening to reveal their secrets and put their futures in jeopardy.
The race becomes suspenseful and thrilling fast, and it’s giving me One of Us is Lying vibes, but with a more academic twist and social commentary on topics like racism, homophobia, and classism.
Atlas Six by Olivie Blake
- Instant New York Times bestseller
- Vulture Best Fantasy Novel of 2022
- Goodreads Best Fantasy Choice Award Nominee
Every ten years, six talented magicians enter an exclusive and elusive secret society. However, this places them in the line of dangerous enemies and even disloyal allies. It’s an epic and fantastical battle to survive their first year.
Babel by R.F. Kuang
Instant #1 New York Times bestseller
Babel sits squarely on my bookshelf, awaiting my reach. I ignored the buzz until I read (and loved) the author’s subsequent novel, and then I just had to pick up a copy for myself.
The title refers to Oxford University’s prestigious Royal Institute of Translation, where a 19th-century Chinese orphan named Robin trains for acceptance with a mysterious classic language professor.
There, translation is both magical and powerful, as silver bars are capable of finding meaning that’s lost in translation.
But, as Robin’s intellect grows, so too does his conflict: Aiding the British’s quest for dominance means betraying his motherland, where silver is sought. This leads him to a secret society that aims to stop Britain’s violent expansion through revolution.
Bunny by Mona Awad
- Named a Best Book of 2019 by TIME, Vogue, Electric Literature, and The New York Public Library
- Soon to be a major motion picture
Bunny caught my attention because it draws comparisons to some of my favorite cult-favorite movies, including Mean Girls and Heathers.
Scholarship student Samantha is the quintessential “outsider” at her New England university’s fine arts program. Initially repulsed by the female clique that calls each other “Bunny,” she finds herself invited into their “Smut Salon.”
Inside their circle, things are darker than they seem, and they become deadly. It’s a powerful tale about the cost of belonging in a fierce academic setting.
Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas
A Most Anticipated Novel by Entertainment Weekly, New York Magazine, Cosmopolitan, The Atlantic, Forbes, Good Housekeeping, Parade, Better Homes and Gardens, HuffPost, Buzzfeed, Newsweek, Harper’s Bazaar, Ms. Magazine, Woman’s Day, PopSugar, and more
Catherine House has been on my “to be read” list of dark academia novels for SO long, both because of the rave reviews it’s received and because the Pennsylvania setting (where I live) caught my eye.
It focuses on an eerily exclusive, and experimental, liberal arts study program of three years removed from the outside world, and it counts some of the world’s greatest and most famous minds as alumni.
There, however, Ines finds herself feeling imprisoned, and tragedy unearths a very dangerous and secretive student group. The twists and thrills in this dark academia favorite have kept readers glued to the pages.
Ghosts of Harvard by Francesca Serritella
Teen Vogue book club pick
Cadence heads to Harvard to uncover the truth about why her schizophrenic brother committed suicide there the previous year.
As she attempts to interpret her brother’s scribble-filled notebook, she begins hearing ghosts. But, as she follows these voices further and further, the question becomes whether she will find the truth or harm.
Good Girls Lie by J.T. Ellison
When I think about the best dark academia books, Good Girls Lie is always at the top of my mind. It’s one wild ride that you won’t be able to put down by the last one hundred pages.
Suffice it to say that SO much action happens in this psychological thriller set at a boarding school for girls in Virginia after British student Ash Carr arrives on campus.
At the outset, the reader learns that someone is dead — hanging from the school gates, but the who, why, and how is unknown. But that’s only one of many dead bodies at issue in this twisted dark academia novel.
The story is told from numerous perspectives in small tidbits, laying out a trail of breadcrumbs for the reader to follow as the truth unfolds. With this type of storytelling, it’s hard to know who to believe — and that’s part of what makes Good Girls Lie unputdownable.
There are school politics, secret societies, Honor codes, haunted histories in a sprawling mid-Atlantic campus, and everything you can want from a dark academia book, as you wait to learn who lives and who dies and more importantly — who is behind it all.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
One of the best-selling books of all time
It may be a controversial choice to add Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to this list of my favorite dark academia books to read versus light academia books, but so many elements of the dark academia genre are all there: from the gothic and atmospheric school setting to dark magic, student alliances, suspicious professors, and even the fight for survival.
If you haven’t read it yet, I don’t know what you’re waiting for! Either way, I highly recommend you check out the graphic and interactive MinaLima edition of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for added dark academia vibes. I’m collecting the whole series in this edition myself!
If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio
One of Bustle’s Best Thriller Novels of the Year
If We Were Villains came highly recommended to me by my lifelong friend who has similar reading interests and implored me to read it.
Ten years before Oliver Marks was released from prison, he was part of a group of Shakespearean actors at Dellecher Classical Conservatory. It’s a passionate environment of immersive theater, where a night of drunken debauchery leads to the death of their own.
And Oliver’s finally ready to tell the truth about what happened.
With parallels to Shakespearean tragedies and their extreme emotions running throughout, it’s a daring and ambitious coming-of-age novel with a school-based mystery that truly delivers. Exploring everything from coping with grief to the motivations that drive us, this is the kind of book that will keep you up late at night just to finish it faster. I found it to be deeply satisfying.
Related Post: Guide to If We Were Villains
I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai
New York Times bestseller
I Have Some Questions For You reads like a very modern take on the dark academia genre, as it involves a podcaster looking back at the past — something I think we will continue to see.
Bodie is a film professor and podcaster who seeks to forget her family tragedy and the 1995 murder of her classmate, Thalia, for which the school trainer was convicted.
But, when she speaks at her alma mater, she sees flaws in the old case and, as she digs even deeper, she must reckon with the past.
As a modern take on dark academia, this one is not about the gothic architecture that’s often characteristic of the genre, but it does involve a student’s death, as well as a search to uncover the truth where things just don’t feel or seem right. Here, the layers are worthy of some peeling back now that time has passed and Bodie has grown up.
In My Dreams I Hold a Knife by Ashley Winstead
An Amazon Best Book of the Month
The title alone of In My Dreams I Hold a Knife intrigues me. Dual timelines recount the campus murder of a female student and the ten-year graduation reunion attended by her group of six friends.
The murder remained unsolved at the time of the reunion, but truth and revenge are sought, threatening to reveal dark secrets along the way in this unputdownable thriller.
The It Girl by Ruth Ware
Instant New York Times bestseller
This novel uncovers the truth about the death, a decade earlier, of Oxford’s popular student, April Clarke-Cliveden, a young woman of “two faces” as many “it” girls are under the stressors of a high-pressure academic setting at a young age.
Her friend, Hannah, is now married to another of their friends, Will, and expecting a baby. But, when April’s convicted killer dies in prison and a journalist presents evidence he may have been innocent, Hannah’s “nesting” stage of life becomes interrupted by a desperate search for the truth.
Hannah reconnects with the remainder of her college group of friends to shed new light on the past, and the results offer twists along the way to a heart-racing conclusion.
The Lying Game by Ruth Ware
- Instant New York Times, USA Today, AND Los Angeles Times bestseller
- Reese’s Book Club pick
For even more from Ruth Ware, check out The Lying Game. When human remains are found in a small coastal village, a resident woman named Kate texts her old boarding school friends that she needs them.
This intriguing opening scene sets the stage for the story of four girls, who were known for their incessant lies and problems at the school.
They reconvene as adults and, while Kate remains guarded, the remainder of the group, led by new mother Isa, slowly uncover the truth behind the lies and, ultimately, they must decide whether to lie or tell the truth going forward.
This novel blends past and present, a moody setting, and a questionable professor/father to keep you as glued to the pages as I was. It’s another twisty and intriguing dark academia tale from her spooky catalog of page-turning thrillers.
The Maidens by Alex Michaelides
Instant New York Times bestseller
I’ve also read the entire catalog of Alex Micahelides, and his murder mystery The Maidens is one of the first books that comes to my mind when I think about dark academia books, particularly for its nods to Greek culture and history.
Mariana Andros is a therapist who believes a university’s charming Greek tragedy professor has murdered her niece’s friend and member of a female secret society.
After another death, Mariana becomes obsessed with the group and determined to prove the professor’s guilt at any cost.
This dark academia thriller was really well written overall, with complex layers beyond that of most thrillers that kept me intrigued throughout.
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
A most anticipated book by The New York Times, USA Today, Entertainment Weekly, Marie Claire, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, Bustle, Newsweek, New York Post, Esquire, Real Simple, The Sunday Times, and The Guardian
My Dark Vanessa is likely one of the darkest of dark academia romance books. It has been on my “to be read” list for quite some time, as I know how popular it is. I expect something very murky, yet also powerful, from this one, so the timing has got to be right for me to pick it up.
In the year 2000, Vanessa was a fifteen-year-old student in an affair with her forty-two-year-old teacher.
Seventeen years later, a student accuses him of sexual abuse and reaches out to her. As a result, Vanessa must grapple with the meaning of the past, her subjective memories of it, and the nature of consent.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
The popular and often lauded novel Never Let Me Go was one of the most unique dark academia books I’ve read, as it’s technically science fiction. I’ve also heard a lot of people say it was “required reading” for them when they were in school, which is rare for both dark academia fiction AND science fiction.
Hailsham is the kind of boarding school where students are supported and trained heavily in arts, but its students are allowed little contact with the outside world and are watched over by “guardians.”
After leaving Hailsham, Kathy becomes a “carer” for what are called “donors” and alongside her former classmates, Ruth and Tommy, they uncover the truth about Halisham and themselves.
It’s also a love story and a statement on the value of human life that you won’t soon forget. The writing is so refined, which makes it a page-turner, yet the mystery of the story is also slowly revealed in little tidbits throughout.
Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
- New York Times bestseller
- Goodreads Choice Award Winner
- Locus Finalist
This will be the year I finish Ninth House — I swear it! I started this popular Bookstagram favorite on audio last year, but I really wanted to experience it in print, so I put it off until now. Indeed the hype is what compels me to read it, but the moody setting and plot also intrigue me.
The main character is California dropout Alex Stern, a young woman who gets a second chance at Yale University after a string of bad decisions leaves her the only survivor of a multiple homicide.
There, she’s assigned to monitor the secret societies that count the rich and powerful as alumni. And it’s a world filled with more paranormal activity and forbidden magic than she ever could have imagined.
Already read it? Then, check out book 2 in the Alex Stern series: Hell Bent.
Old School by Tobias Wolff
Finalist for the Pen Faulkner Award
Set in a 1960 prep school, it’s about a student who yearns to become a writer but must first learn how to be himself rather than fit in with his privileged classmates.
One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus
- #1 New York Times Bestseller
- An Entertainment Weekly Best YA Book of the Year Selection
- A Buzzfeed Best YA Book of the Year Selection
- A New York Public Library’s Best Book for Teens Selection
- A Popcrush Best Young Adult Book of the Year Selection
- A CBC Teen Choice Book Award Nominee
- A Bustle Best Young Adult Book of the Month
- A Goodreads Best Young Adult Book of the Year Nominee
- A YALSA Top Ten Best Fiction Book Nominee
- A YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers
I think some people may question whether the One of Us Is Lying series of books qualify as dark academia YA books as they have a lighter and more modern feel than the other books on this list. However, I think they do because they involve murder and secrets at detention — like the 80’s cult classic, The Breakfast Club, but with a deadly twist.
After five students walk into detention at Bayview High (the brain, the beauty, the criminal, the athlete, and the outcast), one ends up dead, and the others are left suspects, scrambling to uncover the truth behind the death.
Everyone has a secret in high school, and this maxim certainly applies to the characters of One of Us Is Lying. As they struggle with protecting or revealing their secrets and get to the bottom of the mystery, there are satisfying twists in this wildly popular read, as the truth is ultimately revealed.
I grew to love the characters in this series, as well as the coming of age themes, and I think you will too!
The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz
- New York Times bestseller
- The Tonight Show Summer Reads Winner
- A New York Times Notable Book of 2021
The Plot is a literary thriller. I don’t mean a literary genre thriller — I mean a thriller with literature at its core. This is a growing sub-genre that I think we will continue to see more of in the future and, given The Plot’s suspense, untrustworthy professor protagonist, and school setting, I do think it also qualifies as one of the best dark academia books.
This one really had my heart racing, and it’s pretty juicy too! A struggling author turned teacher steals the plot of his student after his death in an attempt to earn back his literary esteem.
When an anonymous email calls him a thief, his paranoia kicks in and he begins to investigate who’s behind it and the source of the plot, leaving the reader to question who owns a story. It’s so propulsive. I highly recommend it.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
We have finally reached the book that practically defines the dark academia genre: The Secret History! I swear, practically every one of the subsequent dark academia books uses this title as a comparison.
This modern classic is my favorite Fall thrillers, especially for fans of literary fiction, and it contains some of the best dialogue I’ve ever read.
Filled with moody scenes of a small town in New England in the Fall, it’s about an outcast from California who attends a preppy Vermont college in the 1980s and befriends his Greek classmates. Ultimately, their obsession with their coursework has deadly consequences.
This is one of those books you can just picture in your mind as you devour the words, and I can practically guarantee the ending will keep you glued to the pages.
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
Ever since I read A Separate Peace in high school, it has always given me dark academia vibes, which is kind of rare for a book that’s also considered to be a classic. It’s a commentary on lost innocence at the time of World War II when America itself lost its innocence.
At a New England boys’ boarding school, Gene, a lonely intellectual befriends, Phineas, a handsome athlete, and over the course of one Summer, what happens between them shatters their innocence forever.
I recommend A Separate Peace to those who want a classic that’s easily readable and very satisfying in a modern context as well.
They Wish They Were Us by Jessica Goodman
Instant Indiebound bestseller
They Wish They Were Us is a quick, engaging YA mystery with a prep school setting. I’m not going to lie — I read it because I loved the cover art!
At a prestigious prep school in Long Island, New York, scholarship student Jill’s best friend Shaila, was killed by her boyfriend three years earlier. Now, he is behind bars.
But like the lives of Jill and her group of friends – “The Players” — nothing is really what it seems. Jill begins to question Shaila’s death while also dealing with prep school issues like cheating and getting into an Ivy League college.
The Truants by Kate Weinberg
- One of the New York Times Book Review‘s Top Ten Best Crime Novels of the Year
- One of USA Today‘s Best Books of the Year
On campus, Jess learns about life, love, and Agatha Christie from her enigmatic professor. There, she also falls into a rebellious group.
But, things take a turn when tragedy occurs. Relationships are broken, and a dark secret is revealed. Jess is left to question the true cost of the life she sought in this edgy debut novel.
Vladimir by Julia May Jonas
An NPR, Washington Post, Time, People, Vulture, Guardian, Vox, Kirkus Reviews, Newsweek, LitHub, and New York Public Library Best Book of the Year
I initially wasn’t going to pick up Vladimir, but rave reviews convinced me otherwise, so it now sits on my bookshelves.
In short, at a small liberal arts college campus, a beloved English teacher’s husband (also a professor) is accused of inappropriate relationships with former students.
Though their marriage is an open one, the accusations still bring challenges. Things escalate even further when a married young novelist arrives at the school and captures the English teacher’s attention. It’s a sharp take on desire and power in an academic context.
You’ve now discovered the hallowed halls of the best dark academia books. Within the walls of these gothic towers lurk secrets, violence, and moral dilemmas that keep readers glued to the pages. To recap and help you decide what to read first or next, my top 3 picks are:
- My top pick: The Secret History
- Best for young adults: One of Us Is Lying
- Most thrilling: Good Girls Lie
What’s your favorite dark academia novel? Share it in the comments below.