Bookworms Review: Dark Academia Books for Fall

A pile of books sits by candlelight next to a steaming cup of tea. Fall is the perfect time to start reading our favorite dark academia books. Illustration by Pearl McNames.

The leaves are turning. The air is chilly. Pumpkins are starting to appear on doorsteps and it’s the perfect time to sit inside in front of the fireplace and enjoy a nice book. Personally, we think that some of the best books to read around this time are spooky stories of mystery and intrigue. Unfortunately, neither of us are horror fans, so our next best option is dark academia. Although it is primarily a fashion aesthetic, we have expanded our personal definition to encompass a genre of literature. We consider books to be “dark academia” if they are evocative of the aesthetic itself: suitably dark or mysterious as well as involving themes of academia, art or literature. Here are some books in that genre that we recommend:

Starting with the classics, we have The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. If you enjoy complex literature and morally dubious main characters, you might like this book. The famous tale of the man whose sins are contained within his portrait, granting him immortality, is a thought-provoking and intriguing read about what it means to be a good person. It is also dark and murder-y, for those who enjoy that. This is a great choice for readers who enjoy old language and philosophical questions. It’s also great if you want the opportunity to reread a lot of paragraphs in order to actually understand exactly what’s going on. If you seek validation in sounding a little pretentious when asked what you’re reading, this book is an absolute must. 

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt is another classic book which follows its main character, Theodore Decker, through the death of his mother and his relationship with the painting The Goldfinch. This book might be difficult to get through because of its length and the dense writing, but the intrigue will keep you coming back. Donna Tartt has written many other books, including The Secret History, another similarly dark book that neither of us have read, and we like to think of her as the queen of dark academia. 

Now we get to the really good stuff. Not that the other books aren’t great, but if you read one book on this list we would recommend If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio. This story follows a group of pretentious theater school friends, all of whom are ambitious and driven by competition amongst the group. When tensions rise, a horrible event occurs…and our main character, Oliver Marks, must pay the consequences. This book is the personification of the “dark academia” aesthetic—both the characters and the events of the book are dark, intellectual and mysterious. Nora, who has very good taste in books, highly recommends giving this one a read. 

The next book is more recent than the classics we listed above. Swallows by Lisa Lutz is a darkly disturbing tale of boarding school rape culture and misogyny—and what happens when, aided by their new creative writing teacher, a group of girls who are fed up try to expose it all and enact their revenge. Scandals and angry tree-chopping abound in this sometimes amusing, sometimes depressing book. If you’re willing to overlook some plot holes, a large cast of characters, and the extremely high levels of frustration that may arise from some of the more messed-up characters and mentalities, you might give this book a try.

If you enjoyed Leigh Bardugo’s popular YA series, such as Six of Crows or Shadow and Bone—or even if you didn’t—you might enjoy her new adult novel, Ninth House. This book follows our protagonist, Alex Stern, into a mysterious secret society at Yale. It’s a world of ghosts, magic, and murder with some super creepy magical secret societies. They’re basically paranormal overeducated frats and it’s Alex’s job to keep them in check. The paranormal elements make for a great Halloween read, but the intrigue and mystery are what really sell it. Alex feels so real she basically jumps off the page to greet you when you open the book. The whole concept is fascinating and well executed. We are currently reading this book and can’t wait to finish it! 

Vicious by V. E. Schwab is exactly as the title suggests. Vicious. If you enjoy books that leave you unsettled but curious, this is for you. Vicious throws you into the story of two college students of morally questionable character who come up with a theory about using near death experiences to make superheroes, or ExtraOrdinaries. Eli Cardale and Victor Vale are ambitious to a fault and when they decide to take it one step further and experiment with their theory by trying to become superheroes, their already weak friendship crumbles. Vicious has it all: friends to enemies, Frankenstein-like experiments, and found family. You won’t be able to put this book down and fortunately there is a sequel. Unfortunately, the third book in this trilogy has yet to be published so if you want to spare the cliffhanger agony of the second book you might need to wait to start the series. 

The next book we will suggest is actually not a mutual recommendation. A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik follows El (full name Galadriel), a social outcast at her deadly magic school, as she attempts to make it to graduation. She is fated to be a deadly sorceress, but all she wants is to survive the year ahead of her. With the help of an unlikely cast of new friends and allies, she adventures her way through a junior year like no other. Since we disagreed on this book, we will let you know our opinions separately and you can decide who has better taste. (Hint: there’s a right answer.)

Sophie’s Opinion: While there is an interesting world and an amazingly snarky heroine, this book was not worth picking up for me. I couldn’t even bring myself to finish it, it just felt like a waste of time. El started to get on my nerves pretty quickly. There was something about her angry and absolutist take on the world that I found frustrating. The writing was all over the place and confusing, and it felt like I was reading a rough draft. I loved the darker take on the magic school idea, so I went into this with so much hope. I wanted so much more world building than I got. There was a lot of potential but I felt that the execution was poor. I don’t think you should overlook it completely, but definitely be aware that it uses a somewhat tedious stream of consciousness as a literary device. It should be noted that I have better taste than Nora. 

Nora’s Opinion: Unfortunately, Sophie didn’t give this book a chance and gave up halfway through. For those with discerning taste and a love for melodramatic narrators with a strong inner dialogue, this book is for you. The writing makes it a bit more of a lighthearted take on the “dark academia” theme—however, there is murder and there are many scenes in a library, so I think it fits right in. Just because Sophie’s review is so scathing doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy this book. Honestly, I have better taste than Sophie, and I recommend this book, so everyone should read it. 

Some books we haven’t read yet: How We Fall Apart by Katie Zhao, Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé, and The Atlas Six by Olivie Blake are all more modern dark academia reads that we’ve heard good things about—we may not be able to personally recommend them but many others do!  

Before you read one of these books, we do want to warn readers that due to the nature of the genre, some of the topics or plot points in these books might be triggering or something you just don’t want to read about. For more information on these subjects, or if you have any suggestions, reactions, or additional opinions on books you want to share with us, feel free to email us at bookworms.fhspost@gmail.com. Unless you’re spoiling Ninth House, in which case, don’t. 

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