Dark Academia: Embrace the Night
As the weather closes in and the darker months take hold, one way I embrace the cold and the lack of natural light is to immerse myself in Dark Academia literature. Dark Academia is an aesthetic movement that takes its cues from a romanticised idea of academic life. Originating as a micro-trend in 2015 on Tumblr, it became a global phenomenon during 2020, when most of the world’s students were studying at home. Embracing the Dark Academia aesthetic helped students worldwide to come to terms with the constraints of their sudden confinement. While the Dark Academia movement started out as an aesthetic, it is developing into something more – a set of values, which are best seen in the new wave of Dark Academia literature.
Literature in the Dark Academia movement often feature plots that explore themes of morality, the exploitation of the young by the old, and the corruption of the elite, particularly the academic elite. Usually set in venerable institutions devoted to learning, characters will often study for long periods of time, usually at night, sometimes by candle light, and typically in beautiful libraries.
Photo by Alex Block
The child of Gen Z, Dark Academia is the most enduring of the cultural movements created by this dynamic and thoughtful young generation.
Dark Academia has its critics. The most convincing of the critics focus on the movement’s lack of diversity and its elitism. The new wave of work addresses both these criticisms in interesting and creative ways. Other criticisms focus on the movement’s emphasis on the aesthetics of learning, rather than learning itself. Though, to me, this feels a little like criticising a novel for not being a text book.
Photo by Jeremy Levin
I love the Dark Academia movement, its focus on the deeper issues and its rejection of rampant consumerism is in itself a refreshing change. This year, many of the novels I’ve read and loved can be categorised as falling into the Dark Academia genre. When facing the prospect of a cold, dark winter, a Dark Academia novel may help you find your silver lining. In no particular order, here are my favourites so far.
Babel – R. F. Kuang
Published in September 2022, Babel is a multiple award winning novel, and it’s fantastic. At its heart, Babel is a ferocious condemnation of the racism and academic elitism of Oxford University’s governing hierarchy. The story follows Robin Swift, a brilliant half Chinese, half British scholarship student who wins a place at the fictitious Babel – Oxford University’s most prestigious centre for translation and magic. Here, Robin learns to harness the power of meanings lost in translation and to imbue that power into silver ingots – that are made into tools which underlie Britain’s ability to colonise. Depending on your mood, you can read this book as a thrilling and mysterious fantasy or as a thesis on empire, race and colonisation. Immerse yourself in Dark Academia’s heartland.
The Drowning Empire Trilogy – Andrea Stewart
The Drowning Empire Trilogy is made up of three richly imagined novels; The Bone Shard Daughter, The Bone Shard Emperor and The Bone Shard War, which was published earlier this year. The imaginative premise of this trilogy is richly filled out with a profusion of detail and colour. In the world of the Drowning Empire, when a person reaches 10 years of age, they must undergo a procedure to contribute a shard of their skull to the emperor.
The procedure has a high fatality rate but the population have reluctantly complied because the bone shards animate powerful constructs, which have protected the empire from outside enemies. The knowledge of how to create and animate constructs is jealously guarded by the emperor. Following multiple character viewpoints, the story is ultimately about how to build and safeguard an equitable and stable empire.
Dark Academia novels are usually set in Western institutions of learning, so these novels, which are set in a China-like country, don’t fit the typical pattern. However, there is enough academic elitism, scenes of studying and the veneration of learning such that I think this trilogy qualifies. If you love completely immersing yourself in a different world through reading, then these novels are for you.
The Cloisters – Katy Hays
Published in November 2022, The Cloisters is Dark Academia heartland. Set in The Cloisters, a real museum in New York, designed to resemble a medieval European monastery, the novel has enough atmospheric description of gothic art and architecture to satisfy even the most hard-core Dark Academia fan. This is a slow burn thriller about the power held by the academic elite and the ruthless pursuit of that power. Hays is a professor of art history, and her scenes of academic research, while glorified by candlelight, still ring true. Not everyone will enjoy the slower, meditative and atmospheric pace, but those who love Dark Academia will.
The Scholomance Trilogy – Naomi Novik
This is an unusual trilogy written for young adults and is made up of A Deadly Education, The Last Graduate, and The Golden Enclaves. Set in Scholomance, a magical school with a difference. With no teachers, barely any food, no holidays and a fairly high mortality rate, Scholomance is no Hogwarts. The only way to leave Scholomance is to forge a pragmatic alliance with a wealthy student who will have the resources to survive the graduation ritual.
I enjoyed this series, particularly the first two books, because of the unusual nature of the school and the level of detail in the world building. The novel deals with power and elitism, and the bravery and sacrifice it takes to create a kinder, more equitable foundation for a stable and just society.
The story features many of Dark Academia’s tropes including detailed descriptions of studying, lots of action by candlelight, a beautiful and unusual library, and an elitist academic institution which shapes an elitist society. Told in the first person narrative, this series is like nothing you’ve ever read.
The Medici Murders – David Hewson
Published earlier this year, The Medici Murders isn’t typically Dark Academia because its main character, Arnold Clover, is retirement age rather than the more typical Gen Z protagonist. However, the novel has all the other elements necessary for Dark Academia, including the veneration of learning and study, extraordinarily atmospheric descriptions of place, in this case Venice, the corruption and ruthlessness of the academic elite, and a thrilling historical mystery.
The story follows retired archivist, Arnold, who has been hired by his former Cambridge professor, Duke Godolphin, to carry out research to shed new light on a historical murder. At the height of his career, Godolphin abandoned serious academic research for the fame and money of being a television historian. Now in his old age, Godolphin wants to regain his academic status, by revealing the results of his findings in a ground breaking television series – thereby combining money, fame and academic reputation. This novel explores the morality of academia and the power and corruption of the academic elite, usually white men. It’s also a wonderful, slow burn thriller. The second novel in the series was published a few months ago – I haven’t read it yet, but I will.
The Alex Stern Series – Leigh Bardugo
Leigh Bardugo’s new duology, and the first novels she’s written for adults, falls squarely into the Dark Academia genre. The series is made up of Hell Bent and Ninth House. Set among the secret societies of Yale University, Bardugo’s novel is a thrilling mystery that has detailed descriptions of academic research, rituals carried out by the academic elite, and what it takes for an outsider to become an insider. I’ve already written a mini review of both novels, which you can find here.
Feature phot by Jez Timms.
If you enjoyed reading these reviews, you might enjoy reading my other book review, which you can find it here.