“The Secret History” by Donna Tartt

"The Secret History" by Donna Tartt (Photo by cikita oktarina on Shutterstock)

The dark academia genre is hard to define. Some of the common tropes of the genre include a boarding school or university, social or political intrigue, and mysterious happenings. This genre is purported to have grown in popularity due to the impact of the “Harry Potter” series, as child fans grew up and still had a taste for stories of academic adventure in educational institutions. Our list of the top five best dark academia novels is a celebration of a diverse group of authors who have succeeded within the genre.

There are no two ways about it; reading is good for you. A recent study finds picking something from the fiction section may also help improve your verbal skills while entertaining you at the same time. Researchers from Concordia University in Canada say reading for fun, especially when it’s fiction, boosts a reader’s scores on language tests.

Fiction books — from “The Hunger Games” (2008) to “Harry Potter” (1997)  — often don’t receive the same praise for their educational benefits as their non-fiction counterparts. However, the team found that reading for fun led to higher scores on tests than those reading only for “function” — to gain specific knowledge from a non-fiction book. In fact, some researchers are examining social reading groups as a treatment for chronic pain. So when you have a throbbing back but would prefer to pass on popping a pill, you might find some relief at your local library.

Ready to dive into the gothic lore of the genre? You might find some read-worthy gems on our list of the top five best dark academia novels. Our trusted sources schooled us in the best of the best so we could rank them for your reading pleasure. Let us know your favorite tales of dark happenings at school in the comments below!

open book on stack of books
Books (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels)

The List: Best Dark Academia Books, According to Fans


1. “The Secret History” (1992) by Donna Tartt

At the top of the list for nearly all our sources, “The Secret History” is an exciting read. This 1992 novel is considered an archetype for the genre. Reader’s Digest reviews this praise-worthy title: “Donna Tartt’s 1992 tome has become the blueprint for dark academia books, with fans even coveting the appropriately academic clothing the author wears in photos. The story revolves around six friends who attend a small liberal arts college in Vermont and study the classics under a charismatic professor. Also, they commit murder.”

“The Secret History” (1992) by Donna Tartt
“The Secret History” (1992) by Donna Tartt

Pure Wow also loves this novel. Why? “Tartt won the Pulitzer for ‘The Goldfinch,’ but her first title—about a group of bookish misfits at a New England college who fall under the spell of a charismatic, morally questionable classics professor—may be the original dark academia novel. Richard, the narrator and newest member of the group, finds himself quickly burdened by very dark secrets.”

The Uncorked Librarian raves, “‘The Secret History’ by Donna Tartt is the most iconic of all dark academia books for a reason. In this intriguing story of treachery and corruption, an enigmatic Classics professor at an elite New England college draws together an exclusive clique of his very best students… Decades on from its initial publication in 1992, ‘The Secret History’ continues to ensnare dark academia readers old and new alike.”

2. “The Atlas Six” (2020) by Olivie Blake

This successful self-published novel gained traction as a digital release prior to being purchased at auction by Tor Books. Now it tops the list with fan review sites like Goodreads. Rainbow Reading Nook writes: “It has [an] amazing 11 million mentions on TikTok. ‘The Atlas Six’ is about a secret society of academics known as The Alexandrian Society. Their members look after lost knowledge; and they secure a life of awe-inspiring wealth, power and prestige… Dark academia fans will fall in love with this book.”

“The Atlas Six” (2020) by Olivie Blake
“The Atlas Six” (2020) by Olivie Blake

Book Riot summarizes, “The journey to acceptance [in The Alexandrian Society] will be anything but easy, and the candidates are told upfront that only five will ultimately be considered for admission. Libby, Nico, Reina, Parisa, Callum, and Tristan are this year’s initiates and what’s a tortured, competitive group without some romantic sparks?”

She Reads adds, “Every decade, the six best magicians are selected to earn their place in the Alexandrian Society, the most prominent and elite secret society in existence. Those selected will live with power and prestige they never could have dreamed of. But in order to make it in, the recruits are forced to grow close to dangerous enemies, risk betrayal, and fight for their lives like never before.”

3. “The Truants” (2019) by Kate Weinberg

“The Truants” was first published in 2019 and is the debut title from author Kate Weinberg. This novel made an impact on our sources as well as the New York Times. Celadon Books explains, “The New York Times Book Review listed Kate Weinberg’s ‘The Truants’ as one of the top crime books of 2020, and we have to agree. The suspenseful novel focuses on Jess Walker, who meets a group of misfits after she enrolls in a seminar taught by the magnetic Dr. Lorna Clay. Though things start off fine, friendships and romances soon turn sour, tragedy occurs, and dark secrets are exposed in this entrancing whodunnit.”

“The Truants” (2019) by Kate Weinberg
“The Truants” (2019) by Kate Weinberg

discovery also praises, “If you’re craving an untrustworthy cast of characters, numerous intertwined mysteries, and strong dark academia vibes — this novel is the one for you. Our protagonist, Jess Walker, is nineteen and heading off to college for her first flash of adult ‘freedom’. However, things soon become complicated as Jess encounters roadblocks in the form of her charismatic lead professor and idol, Lorna Clay, and an exiled journalist with a fatal attraction to women.”

“Jess Walker has come to a concrete campus for one reason: to be taught by the mesmerizing and rebellious Dr. Lorna Clay, whose seminars soon transform Jess’s thinking on life, love, and Agatha Christie. Swept up in Lorna’s thrall, Jess falls in with a tightly knit group of rulebreakers. But the dynamic between the friends begins to darken, until a tragedy shatters their friendships and love affairs, and reveals a terrible secret,” offers Penguin Random House.

4. “Ace of Spades” (2021) by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé

Some reading gatekeepers sneer at the prospect of reading young adult fiction, but “Ace of Spades” could cause them a moment of pause to reconsider. This 2021 release offers a fresh take on established school drama tropes. Paste writes, “Described as ‘Gossip Girl’ meets ‘Get Out,’ this YA thriller focuses on the only two Black students at an elite private school who start receiving threats from an anonymous source after they’re selected as class prefects. Àbíké-Íyímídé deftly intertwines timely social themes like institutional racism with a twisty, propulsive plot, making for an unforgettable read.”

“Ace of Spades” (2021) by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé
“Ace of Spades” (2021) by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé

“‘Ace of Spades’ follows the story of two students at Niveus Private Academy: high-achieving and ambitious head girl Chiamaka, and reclusive musician Devon. When an anonymous source begins leaking private information about the pair, they’re drawn into a high-stakes game of cat and mouse which threatens to destroy them both. In a genre that at times lacks BIPOC voices, ‘Ace of Spades is a breath of fresh air,’ with its adept handling of complex issues like racism, classism, and homophobia — a not-to-be-missed new release,” according to discovery.

“Within the walls of Niveus Academy, drama is unfolding. An anonymous texter, Ace, has started revealing secrets of fellow students, Chiamaka and Devon, and the two must team up together to unmask Ace. On the surface, Chiamaka and Devon appear to have nothing in common other than the color of their skin, but as more secrets are revealed the connection between the two is [also] revealed,” according to Book Riot.

5. “A Lesson in Vengeance” (2021) by Victoria Lee

Shoutout to another YA novel that just hits different. Many modern authors promote representation in their works, and Victoria Lee has done an excellent job of offering LGBTQ+ inclusion in hers. Reader’s Digest explains the supernatural setting, “This 2021 young adult novel takes readers to the Dalloway School, an old boarding school in the Catskills where, years before, five students died mysteriously—possibly because they were witches.”

“A Lesson in Vengeance” (2021) by Victoria Lee
“A Lesson in Vengeance” (2021) by Victoria Lee

“Felicity Morrow has returned to Dalloway School after taking a year off to mourn the death of her girlfriend. Before her leave, Felicity dabbled in witchcraft and other dark magic like the rest of the school and was fascinated with the story of the Dalloway Five (students who previously died on campus). But her plans immediately go awry when she attracts the attention of the new student who wants her help researching,” according to Book Riot.

Penguin Random House states, “Enter the halls of the Dalloway School, a centuries-old, ivy-covered boarding school that is haunted by its past and its history of witchcraft. Here, Felicity Morrow and Ellis Haley start digging into the Dalloway Five, five girls (although rumors say they were witches) who died mysteriously on school grounds. But the farther they get in their research, the more history begins to repeat itself, and these two will have to face the darkness in Dalloway—and themselves.”

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Note: This article was not paid for nor sponsored. StudyFinds is not connected to nor partnered with any of the brands mentioned and receives no compensation for its recommendations.

About Alan Corona

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  1. Victoria says:

    One of THE best novels interesting, well written ominous characters a real depiction of the effects of meth

  2. Susy says:

    I can’t belive that Ninth House wasn’t included in this!

  3. Ann says:

    I just finished Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl, and it belongs on this list.

  4. Grant says:

    One of the best, and virtually unknown, that I’ve ever read is a book called Drop by H.D. Kirkland. I found it on Goodreads. It’s a crazy psychological/psychedelic dark thriller.

  5. Laurel says:

    Just read Babel :Or the Necessity of Violence: An Archane History by R.F. Kuang and it should be on this list!

  6. Lucy says:

    If we were villains by M.L Rio should 100% be on this list