7 YA Novels That Bring Color to Dark Academia

Because we scholars, preppy and pedantic, are not always white

Photo by Liv Cashman on Unsplash

Think of a university quad crammed in the center of a huddle of gothic inspired university buildings, topped with gargoyles and arching spires. Think of roaming the dimly lit library stacks, and catching a coven of students steeped in the most expensive brown leather and tweed, planning sinister acts. A disappearance, a mysterious campus murder, ancient secret societies hiding an even more ancient magic; this is the aesthetic called dark academia.

Less of a genre and more of a theme that a reader can recognize regardless of the author’s intent, dark academia in literature can cover a variety of topics. It is often recognized in YA, as most stories typically take place on an elite high school or college campus, and revolves around a student or a group of students. The main cast can either be elites or outsiders, but are always deeply academically involved: straight “A” students with a scholarship to maintain, devoted Latin and Greek majors, or those who can and will cite Aristotle’s De Anima in a casual conversation. 

But in terms of genre, it can be a thriller, a mystery, a literary classic, an adventure, or something else entirely with no formula for how it plays out. Dead Poets Society by Tom Schulman and A Secret History by Donna Tartt are both considered dark academia classics. If you’re familiar with those examples, you might be aware that both stories are overwhelmingly white. Like academia in general, dark academia stories tend to exclude people of color, whether consciously or unconsciously. But we scholars, preppy and pedantic, are not always white. For all of the academics of color, here’s a list of seven dark YA narratives surrounding the intrigues of academic life.

Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké‑Íyímídé 

Feeling like the fly in the buttermilk is an all too familiar sensation to African American academics, and Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé’s debut novel fuses the air of petty evil from Pretty Little Liars with the anxiety of being cornered from Get Out to articulate this experience. Elite, wealthy, popular girl Chiamaka, and unsociable yet talented musician from the rough part of the neighborhood, Devon are the only two Black students at Niveus Private Academy. They both have high aspirations that all hinge on the success of their final year of high school, but during the first weeks of class they are sabotaged by anonymous text messages sent to their classmates that spill secrets that can ruin their lives, or have them dead.

Àbíké‑Íyímídé addresses systemic racism in academia as well as toxic friendships, all the while drawing us in with the drama and intrigue. As a Black, queer author, she is as tired of Black and queer struggle narratives as the rest of us; we can count on her to not put us through any unnecessary pain. But Ace of Spades is certainly a thriller, and challenges two Black high schoolers to survive the racist tyranny of their white classmates all while maintaining their prestigious college prospects. 

How We Fall Apart by Katie Zhao

How We Fall Apart begins with a classic dark academia flair; the mysterious death of a classmate within a shady group of friends. Nancy Luo’s former best friend turns up dead, and with another Gossip Girl-style social media ghost called the “Proctor” incriminating Nancy’s friends, tensions begin to rise and secrets begin to come out. With comparisons to Crazy Rich Asians and One of Us is Lying, this mystery thriller is driven forth by a cast of high school students dedicated to coming out on top, even if it means betraying one another. The pressure to succeed that stems from being raised by immigrant parents mixed with the usual social stresses of high school life creates a soup of toxicity that melts through the moral limits of the teenage protagonists. 

We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia

Daniela Vargas is the top student of Medio School for Girl’s distinguished young ladies. As a “Primera,” she is training to be the perfect homemaker so a rich young man’s family will pay her dowry. This is her path to a comfortable life. However, this life had to be stolen; she had been born in a poor, disenfranchised area and smuggled to a more privileged neighborhood as a baby in order to be accepted to the school. This life-changing secret almost comes to light on her graduation day, but Daniela is saved by a secret society that asks her to spy on her new husband. 

The book begins in the finishing school, then transitions to Daniela’s new home life. It’s full of dark imagery depicting a not too unrealistic dystopia where women can choose to be either clever social organizers or attractive yet motherly sexual objects. It draws heavily on the classism, xenophobia, and racism that resulted in inhumane conditions for Mexican immigrants at the U.S. border. We Set the Dark on Fire is the first in a fantasy series that builds up to a fascinating sapphic romance.

The Tenth Girl by Sara Faring

The Tenth Girl is a psychological thriller steeped in Argentine folklore, with a slight twist in the dark academia style using a teacher as the protagonist instead of a student.

Vaccaro School for Girls is a mansion that sits atop a dark, wooded cliff. Isolated in the wilderness, the school has few students, and it curses all who settle there. Mavi, a teacher from Buenos Aires fleeing an oppressive military regime, lands a job teaching at the haunted finishing school. Initially she is undaunted by its strangeness despite warnings from others, but things become more dire when one of her ten students go missing. 

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

Alex Stern’s difficult youth culminates in being the sole survivor of a brutal homicide. As a high school dropout in Los Angeles, she didn’t expect much improvement in her life from her hospital bed as she recovered from the attack. But to her surprise, she is invited to attend Yale University all the way across the country in Connecticut. She earns this free ride with the ability to see ghosts, so that she can keep an eye on the eight secret societies of Yale as part of the ninth society called Lethe. Alex uses both her street sense and her supernatural ability to survive cleaning up after the ghosts that the eight houses unleash onto the city of New Haven.

Ninth House blends darkness with an old academic setting wonderfully. It is book one in a series, with the next installment expected in January 2023. While Bardugo commonly writes YA, this is solidly adult fiction and deals with heavier themes like sexual assault.

Legendborn by Tracy Deonn

Any student’s first night on campus, away from family can feel a bit lonely. Especially for Bree Mathews who leaves home to find peace at a residential school after the sudden death of her mother. However, a violent demon attack makes the experience all the more difficult for the sixteen-year old. Legendborn is an interesting mix of dark academia and a YA fantasy adventure as Bree explores secret societies and discovers her own magic. 

The Taking of Jake Livingston by Ryan Douglass

The premise of The Taking of Jake Livingston is startling in many ways: a young Black psychic being threatened with demonic possession by the vengeful ghost of a school shooter. Jake is the only Black kid in his school who is also struggling with his closeted queer identity. The evil spirit, Sawyer, targets Jake’s emotional vulnerability to use his body to commit more atrocities. Within all of this, Jake is offered a chance at romance with a handsome new student, Allister.

While we can always tell ourselves that “ghosts aren’t real” to convince ourselves to go to sleep in the dark of night, Ryan Douglass weaves many undeniable fears throughout the narrative about how isolation can affect our psyches. Flipping through the viewpoints of Jake and Sawyer, sheds light on the differences and similarities in their experiences.

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