10 Satisfyingly Sinister Novels about Secret Societies
Novels about secret societies are staples of the thriller and mystery genres, for good reason. Plot events that seemed like coincidences can actually be the result of a mysterious group pulling the strings; the protagonist can infiltrate the secret society to try to get access to hidden knowledge; and, of course, we all love a good conspiracy. Some secret societies can be murderous and sinister, manipulating events for their own ends, while others are guarding arcane knowledge and working behind the scenes to keep people safe. Many plots revolve around the protagonist getting inducted into the secret society, perhaps tearing it down from the inside, or using its resources to achieve their goals and find their happy ending.
While there are many famous novels featuring secret societies, like Agatha Christie’s The Seven Dials Mystery or practically everything by Dan Brown, more recent examples are often overlooked — which is a shame, because there are so many shining examples. In the last few years, several fantastic novels about secret societies have been published, with offerings from the fantasy and YA genres as well as contemporary mysteries. Whether the setting is a boarding school or a remote island, a magical realm or a modern-day city, there are plenty of compelling stories with shadowy organisations at their hearts. Read on for a list of some of the best novels about secret societies currently out there.
Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé
Àbíké-Íyímídé’s debut novel tells the story of Chiamaka and Devon, the only two Black students in the exclusive Niveus Private Academy. Chiamaka is reaching heady heights in her school career, while Devon is trying to keep his head down and get by, but when an anonymous figure named “Aces” threatens to reveal their secrets, the two discover that a secret society may be working against them.
The Lighthouse Witches by C. J. Cooke
If you like your thrillers chilling and Gothic, The Lighthouse Witches is a creepy and atmospheric read. When two children go missing on a remote Scottish island, their mother and the missing children’s remaining sister try to uncover the truth of what’s happened to them — a truth that involves secret societies, supernatural occurrences, and a plot drawn from the real-life history of the Scottish witch trials.
Her Majesty’s Royal Coven by Juno Dawson
Another witchy novel, Dawson’s adult debut follows four women who practice magic as part of a secret government society of witches. The group was set up by Anne Boleyn, and has influenced every major historical event since. However, in the aftermath of a magical war, HMRC begins to fracture, and the protagonists have to make a choice about where their true loyalties lie.
This Books Kills by Ravena Guron
In this YA thriller, protagonist Jess falls under suspicion when the golden boy of her exclusive private boarding school is killed in the exact same way that she described in a short story she wrote for class. Jess has to solve the mystery, and find out whether the school’s mysterious Regia Club are involved, before the murderer targets her too.
Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
Best known for her Grishaverse novels, Leigh Bardugo writes a tense thriller focused around a secret society with Ninth House. Alex Stern survives a murder attempt, and, while she is recovering, is given the chance to attend Yale for free — all she has to do is report back on the activities of the famous college’s notorious secret societies.
The Honeys by Ryan La Sala
There are layers upon layers of secret societies and Gothic intrigue in La Sala’s smash hit of a novel. Mars, a genderfluid teenager, goes back to a prestigious summer camp to discover the reason behind his twin sister Caroline’s violent death, and encounters the Honeys, a group of girls who clearly know more about what happened than they are telling.
The Oxford Inheritance by Ann A. McDonald
Universities are popular settings for novels about secret societies, and for good reason: the academic can often cross over into the arcane, and universities often have old traditions that can seem weird or even sinister to outsiders. In The Oxford Inheritance, American student Cassandra goes to Oxford University to try to find out the truth about her mother’s death and finds herself tangled up with a secret society that is subtly influencing the wider world.
Babel by R. F. Kuang
Another tense thriller with an Oxford connection, Babel is a fantasy story set at an alternative Oxford University. It follows Robin, a young orphan from China who is brought to Oxford and trained as a translator; however, the path he has been set on by his benefactor is challenged by the secretive Hermes Society, who want to stop the British Empire’s aggressive path of expansion and colonisation.
Hide by Kiersten White
A murder mystery with mythological undertones, Hide tells the story of a group of people who travel to an abandoned fairground in order to take part in a reality TV game of hide-and-seek, each of them vying for the grand prize that will go to the last person to be found. Of course, there’s more to the game than meets the eye, and the secretive organisation behind it will stop at nothing to ensure the game plays out in the way they want.
The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna
Not all secret societies are sinister: sometimes they can be warm, welcoming, and cosy. In this sweet story, Mika, a woman who secretly has magic powers, joins the Nowhere House to teach other young witches. Mika makes friends, learns how to control her powers, and even finds romance.
If this list has whetted your appetite for thrillers, find more for your TBR pile on our list of 12 New Mystery and Thrillers to Get Sleuthing With February 2023. Confused about the kinds of mysteries out there? Try Whodunnits, Cozies and More: A Mystery Sub-Genres Primer.