If you’re anything like me, you’ll find the winter evenings perfect for immersing yourself in a little dark academia. Whether you enjoy the prestigious school settings, the thrown-together friendships that shouldn’t work but do, or simply the higher education of it all, there is one thing in particular that brings readers to this genre in droves. No, not just the lush preppy aesthetic, but the cutthroat politics behind the shiny facades.
I’ve always loved an academic setting and could reel you off a list of my favorite books, films, and TV shows from the ’90s and ’00s that were based in a school or university. There was something intoxicating about a bunch of teens who were also going through the daily motions but generally having a much worse time than I was. Yes, it was devastating when I fell out with a friend, but at least my dead stepbrother’s tell-all diary hadn’t been photocopied and distributed around the school. (That scene, am I right?!) I also loved horror, so when I started to write the book that would become Win Lose Kill Die, I knew I wanted to combine the two elements. What would happen if Ghostface matriculated at Manchester, the prep school in Cruel Intentions? Or if Emma Roberts from Scream 4 transferred to Abbey Mount School in Wild Child?
Chaos, that’s what.
I ran with these (very vague) ideas and sought inspiration in a variety of places, from podcasts about an Ivy League secret society to the frenemy dynamics on Riverdale. The result was a book full of my favorite tropes, and I had a wonderful time creating the world of Morton Academy and the Morton Five—my found family. Liz, Cole, Taylor, Marcus, and Kat were some of the easiest characters I’ve ever written. They slotted together from day one. I’ve done some truly regrettable things to them, but hey, it’s fine when it’s all in the name of the story, right?
We quickly find out that someone at the historic scholarship-only school will do anything to make sure they get to the top—including killing the competition. The bodies start to pile up, and when it affects the Morton Five, they set out to discover what exactly is going on. Is it connected to Jewel and Bone, the secret society they have blindly sworn allegiance to? The history of a murderous cult that plagues Morton Academy? Or even a corrupt member of staff? They need to find the truth, and quickly, before one of them is next. . . .
Well, enough about my book. I’m here to share some of my favorite dark academia titles. All of these would make a fabulous gift for the bloodthirsty teen (or YA reading adult) in your life this holiday season.
The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater
The Raven Cycle is a series of four books: The Raven Boys, The Dream Thieves, Blue Lily, Lily Blue and The Raven King. They follow a group of private schoolboys, a girl called Blue (the only non-psychic in a clairvoyant family) and delve into the superstitions behind leylines and folklore in a sleepy American town. Now, I’m not saying that when I read this I started researching Latin lessons, but…ok, fine. I totally did. The world of the Blue and the boys from Aglionby Academy is intoxicating and their search for a lost Welsh king is liberally sprinkled with magic, ghosts and more than a little yearning romance.
The Society for Soulless Girls by Laura Steven
Welcome to Carvell Academy of the Arts, newly reopened after a decade and the unsolved North Tower murders. New student Lottie decides to investigate but then her roommate finds a sinister book in the library…and the North Tower claims another victim. Can they find out just how close the killer is before they are next? This is a furious retelling of the enduring classic, Jekyll and Hyde, written in beautifully dark, lyrical prose. As the dedication says, this one is for the girls who were born angry.
The Dead House by Dawn Kurtagich
When a diary turns up in the charred ruins of Elmbridge High, it details what happened the night the school was set alight. The problem is the name on the diary—Kaitlyn—belongs to a girl who only existed in the mind of another who had gone missing – Carly Johnson. A non-linear narrative adds to the confusion and lent itself beautifully to this story. I adored the layout too, as it’s told in epistolary form, through found footage and video transcripts, diary entries and more. There is one scene in particular that has stuck with me to this day because of the pure shock it made me feel—you’ll know it when you get to it, I promise. It’s deliciously dark and unsettling and I loved it.
The Changing Man by Tomi Oyemakinde
A term before Ife Adebola joins the scholarship program at Nithercott School, a male student goes missing. Ife tries to keep her head down and her grades up, but when new friend, Malika, starts acting strange, Ife, Bijal and Ben—the missing student’s brother—try to help. Is there any truth to the school’s legend of the Changing Man? And if so, will they be his next victims? I inhaled this debut and loved the tense undercurrent that ran throughout it. You very much get the impression that anything can happen at Nithercott—and then it does, at breakneck speed.