When you think dark academia, you probably think uniforms, university, and mysteries or thrillers; you don’t think science fiction or fantasy. But you should. And here’s why: there’s more dark academia in science fiction and fantasy than you likely realize. In fact, several of the best dark academia books to come out in the last year have been SFF novels. We’re taking Hugo and Goodreads Choice Awards nominees. Nothing to shake your head at. And it makes sense: magic and dark academia go hand in hand. Think haunted libraries and dark mages, ancient societies and supernatural creatures — all things that mesh beautifully with gothic university halls and dark mysteries.
These ten books are just the tip of the iceberg of dark academia in science fiction and fantasy, but they’re a perfect example of why this sub-genre works so well in the world of SFF. Dark academia is all about atmosphere and there is nothing more atmospheric than a magical university, libraries full of grimoires, or necromantic armies. Crack open any one of these dark academia SFF books to enter a world of curiosity, danger, and intrigue at the hands of renowned wordsmiths who might as well be mages themselves. But be forewarned: I can’t promise you won’t come through the experience unchanged.
Babel by R.F. Kuang
I don’t think I have ever read a book more perfectly dark academia than this gorgeous historical fantasy novel all about a magical translation department at Oxford University. It’s also about colonialism and racism and friendship, but dark academia–obsessed language lovers are going to particularly fall head over heels for Kuang’s nuanced ideas about how words and translations can be used to imbue power.
The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean
Dark academia books don’t always have to be set in a school. Sometimes they just involve an obsession with knowledge or learning, like in The Book Eaters where vampire-like supernatural beings subsist on books — literally. As a young Book Eater, Devon is raised on fairytales, as is proper for a young girl according to her ancient family. But it doesn’t take her long to realize life as a woman among her people will be anything but a fairytale. And in order to protect her young children, she will ultimately have to team up with her enemies in order to escape from the very people meant to protect her.
The Atlas Six by Olivie Blake
In a secret society of magical academics known as the Alexandrians, six new members are chosen for initiation once every decade. It’s a prestigious offer, promising power and wealth beyond their wildest imaginings. But only five will become Alexandrians. This class of initiates includes a mind reader, a naturalist, cosmologists who can control matter with their minds, and a crime kingpin, and a rich boy who could bring about the end of the world. Five of them will become members. One of them will be eliminated. All they must do is prove they’re the best — and survive one year by each other’s sides.
Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, Translated by Julia Meitov Hersey
The Institute of Special Technologies: a place where books are impossible to read and lessons defy memorization. Teachers go to draconian lengths to keep students in line. And yet Sascha, newly enrolled, has never wanted anything so much as to undergo the changes she begins to experience — changes that defy the dictates of matter and time.
The Society For Soulless Girls by Laura Steven
A haunted library has claimed multiple lives in the North Tower at the Carvell College of Arts. And now that it has reopened its doors to students, the library has struck again. Lottie’s roommate, Alice, is the one to stumble into the sinister soul-splitting ritual. Lottie is determined to get to uncover the mysteries at the heart of the library murders, but can she do so before Alice’s monstrous alter ego takes over?
Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson
Is there anything more perfectly dark academia than being raised in a library? As a resident of the Great Library of Summershall, Elisabeth was raised with the knowledge that magic is dangerous and sorcerers are never to be trusted. After all, the grimoires she and the other librarians look over can come to life and wreak havoc. But when she’s accused releasing one of the library’s most dangerous grimoires, she finds herself met with two unlikely allies: a sorcerer and his demonic servant. Together they must tackle a centuries-old conspiracy that would destroy all of the Great Libraries and the world along with them.
The Library of the Unwritten by A.J. Hackwith
In a special section in the Library of Hell, books that remain unfinished by their authors reside in the Unwritten Wing. As head librarian, Claire is in charge of maintaining the library and, occasionally, tracking down the restless characters that spring to life from the pages of the books in her care. So when a wayward Hero escapes his story to track down the author who never finished it, Claire must team up with a former muse and a nervous demon courier to recapture him. But what should’ve been an easy retrieval soon becomes embroiled in the battle between Heaven and Hell when an angel attacks, believing the librarians possess a book that could turn the tide and reshape the boundaries between Heaven, Hell, and Earth itself.
A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark
At the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities, agents work to keep the peace between the natural and the supernatural in Cairo. And Agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi is no rookie. But when someone murders a secret brotherhood dedicated to the man who opened up the veil between humanity and magic 50 years ago, claiming to be Al-Jahiz returned to condemn the modern world, even Agent Fatma is stunned. Now, she must either prove he is an imposter before he destroys the city, or face the fact that one of the most influential figures from history has come back to wreak havoc on the present — and neither option will be pretty.
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
This list definitely leans fantasy, but I’d be remiss not to include this genre-blending SF/F novel set in space. A swordswoman and a necromancer must join forces on a deadly venture to create the Emperor’s next immortal servant. It will take all of their wits and skills to stay alive. The only problem? Gideon and Harrowhark are sworn enemies who have been at each others throats since childhood. Winning means eternal glory. Failure will result in certain death. But no pressure, right?
The Whispering Dark by Kelly Andrew
At Godbole University, students are trained in the art of slipping between dimensions. After being accepted, Delaney Meyers-Petrov is ready for the opportunity to be seen as more than just a Deaf girl with something to prove. But Delaney’s talents go beyond the average Godbole student. She hears voices calling from the shadows and carries a strange connection to a fellow student who died…only to turn up resurrected at her feet almost a decade ago. And when a student turns up dead, she must team up with the very boy she’s been trying to avoid in order to uncover the university’s darkest secrets and confront a nameless enemy who could tear the universe apart.
Falling down the dark academia rabbit hole? Here are some more dark fantasy and dark academia recs:
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