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The Allure of Dark Academia: A Curated List of 10 Must-Read Books

The Allure of Dark Academia: A Curated List of 10 Must-Read Books

The world of literature is a vast expanse where genres and sub-genres coalesce and diverge, creating spaces for every reader's whim and fancy. One such sub-genre that has piqued the collective fascination in recent years is Dark Academia. This term refers to a style and aesthetic that revolves around classic literature, the pursuit of self-discovery, and a passion for learning, all tinged with darker themes such as existentialism, death, and moral ambiguity. If you've ever been enchanted by the aesthetic of old libraries, the air thick with the scent of aged paper and ink, you're already halfway into the realm of Dark Academia.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of Dark Academia's rise is its popularity among young adults. In essence, Dark Academia books serve as a lens through which modern society can examine its own attitudes towards education, morality, and the pursuit of knowledge. It serves both as a celebration of intellectualism and a cautionary tale about the potential pitfalls of unchecked ambition and moral compromise. The genre invites introspection and debate, making it a rich field not just for entertainment but for academic and philosophical discussion as well.

In literature, Dark Academia shines as a category steeped in intellectual curiosity yet clouded by mystery, moral dilemmas, and, often, the tragic flaws of its characters. Here's a list of must-read books that are quintessentially Dark Academia, each contributing to the genre in its unique way:

  1. The Secret History by Donna Tartt

No list of Dark Academia books is complete without Donna Tartt's The Secret History. Set in the elite Hampden College, the story unravels the life of a group of classics students whose intellectual ambitions lead them down a path of moral decay and, ultimately, murder. The novel takes place in a fictional Vermont college, Hampden, where the protagonist, Richard Papen, becomes engrossed in a small, exclusive circle of students studying ancient Greek under the charismatic and mysterious Professor Julian Morrow. As Richard becomes more deeply involved with this group, he discovers that their intellectual pursuits have led them down a morally precarious path. A murder among the group sets off a complex web of psychological and emotional tensions that unravel throughout the novel. With sublime writing and intricate character development, this book is a cornerstone of the genre.

  1. Babel by R. F. Kuang
R.F. Kuang's Babel is a newer entry into the Dark Academia genre but has already captured the attention of readers with its intellectually stimulating plot and complex characters. Set in a speculative world that parallels 19th-century Europe with its intricate political dynamics, the story follows a group of young scholars who descend into the enigmatic depths of a legendary library known as Babel- at the heart of Oxford University’s prestigious Royal Institute of Translation, in an alternate-reality 1830s England where Britain's global economic and colonial supremacy is fueled by the use of magical silver bars. Their power comes from capturing what is "lost in translation" between words in different languages that have similar, but not identical, meanings. The students soon discover that language comes at a price—sometimes a very dangerous one. 

    The plot focuses on four new students at the institute, their growing awareness that their academic efforts maintain Britain’s imperialist supremacy, their debate over how to prevent the Opium War, and the use (and necessity) of violence. 

    1. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

    Although not traditionally considered Dark Academia, Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go fits the bill with its academic setting and its darker themes. Narrated by Kathy, the story explores friendship, love, and the human condition, revealing the grim fate awaiting them. The novel is set in a dystopian world where children are raised to be organ donors. With elements of science fiction and ethical dilemmas, this book makes for a compelling read.

    1. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

    This classic text explores the moral downfall of Dorian Gray, a man who remains young and beautiful, while a portrait of him ages and shows the scars of his sinful deeds. Set against a backdrop of high society and artistic circles, this book touches upon themes of vanity, moral duplicity, and the human soul.

    1. Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

    For those who prefer a mix of fantasy in their reading, Ninth House offers a darker take on Yale’s secret societies. The protagonist, Alex Stern, is given a full ride to Yale because of her unique ability to see ghosts. She soon finds out that the elite are involved in occult activities, and it's her job to monitor them. Dark, mystical, and highly engaging, this book is Dark Academia with a supernatural twist.


    1. Truly Devious series by Maureen Johnson

    For those who enjoy a good whodunit alongside their dose of academic aesthetic, the Truly Devious series is a perfect fit. Set in the elite Ellingham Academy, a boarding school for exceptional students, this trilogy revolves around Stevie Bell, a true-crime aficionado determined to solve the academy’s most famous unsolved murder case from the 1930s. But when history starts to repeat itself, it's a race against time for Stevie to solve the mystery before tragedy strikes again. 

    Laced with riddles, an intriguing cast, and the looming shadows of the past, this series is a thrilling venture into the darker aspects of academia and the human psyche.

    1. Bunny by Mona Awad

    If you're interested in exploring the darker aspects of creativity and

    companionship, Mona Awad's Bunny is an unmissable addition to your Dark Academia reading list. Set in an elite MFA program at a fictional university, the story offers a haunting, hallucinatory dive into the world of a clique of young women who refer to each other as Bunny

    The novel follows Samantha, an outsider who is both repelled and fascinated by this seemingly saccharine sisterhood. As Samantha becomes more involved with the Bunnies, the boundaries between reality, imagination, and the grotesque blur, resulting in a gripping tale of longing, artistic creation, and a uniquely dark form of magical realism.


    1. The Scholomance Trilogy by Naomi Novik

    For those who find appeal in the marriage of fantasy and the harsh realities of

    academic life, Naomi Novik's The Scholomance Trilogy is an indispensable addition to the Dark Academia genre. Set within the Scholomance, a magic school that's as deadly as it is instructive, students must navigate a curriculum laden with spells and enchantments while avoiding being devoured by malevolent entities lurking within the school's walls. 

    Unlike other magical academies where the primary concerns may be potion-making or wand-waving, here the stakes are viscerally life-and-death. As the characters inch closer to graduation—a ceremony that is essentially a brutal survival test—the series delves deep into themes of isolation, sacrifice, and the ethics of survival in a system designed to cull the weak.

    1. The Atlas Six Series by Olivie Blake

    While The Atlas Six serves as a potent introduction to the world of the Alexandrian Society, the continuation of the series digs deeper into the lives, ambitions, and intricate relationships of the six magicians who aim to ascend in this secretive order. As the series progresses, the labyrinth of intellectual and magical challenges intensifies, forcing the characters to confront not just external dilemmas but also their innermost fears and desires. 

    The stakes rise exponentially, with each new book adding layers of complexity to an already convoluted narrative. Themes of power dynamics, the corrupting nature of limitless knowledge, and the philosophical implications of wielding god-like abilities continue to be explored in this sprawling saga.

    1. The Raven Cycle series by Maggie Stiefvater

    Adding a layer of mythical allure to the Dark Academia genre is Maggie Stiefvater's The Raven Cycle series. Set in the small, sleepy town of Henrietta, the series orbits around the quest for a mythical Welsh king, said to grant a single favour to the one who awakens him. Centred around a group of students from the local private school, Aglionby Academy, and a local girl who lives on a ley line, the series marries the academic pursuits of history and mythology with the supernatural elements of magic and prophecy. 

    The academy serves not just as a backdrop but as a starting point for a deeper, darker quest—one that challenges the very fabric of reality and history. This series effectively captures the spirit of relentless inquiry and the intoxicating allure of the unknown, serving as a testament to the genre's ability to blend intellectual curiosity with existential wonder.

    Why Dark Academia is more than just an “Aesthetic”

    Dark Academia is more than a literary genre or an “aesthetic”; it's a space that allows for the exploration of complex characters, moral ambiguity, and the quintessential questions that haunt human existence. These books, each in their own way, invite the reader to confront the darker aspects of their intellect and soul. The richness and depth in these stories make them not just compelling reads but also contemplative experiences.

    So, dim the lights, make yourself a cup of black coffee or tea, and let yourself get lost in the labyrinthine corridors of Dark Academia. After all, in the words of Oscar Wilde, "To define is to limit." The realm of Dark Academia is ever-expanding, and these books are just the beginning.

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