The atmosphere of July’s Dandy Roll Book Club pick is undeniably addictive. Alex Michaelides’ The Maidens sports elements of dark academia, a genre rising rapidly in popularity within the past few years. Dark academia acts as a broad umbrella, encompassing the atmospheric and sentimental facets of topics from ancient retellings, murder mysteries, and classic tales. If you enjoyed The Maidens, you’re sure to find your next great read on this list.
When I think of dark academia, I think of If We Were Villains by M L Rio. Oliver Marks has been in prison for 10 years, charged with a murder that he may or may not have committed. Upon his release, he is questioned by the detective (now retired) that put him away; he wants to know what really happened between Oliver, his friends, and his dead classmate during their time studying Shakespeare in college. As Oliver begins his story, the reader is taken back to the scene of the crime, where on-stage personas bleed into the students’ reality.
Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo was one of my absolute favorite books of 2020. As the creator of the Grishaverse, Bardugo takes a sharp turn in her adult debut following Galaxy “Alex” Stern as she navigates her way through the shadows of Yale secret societies. After a terrible “accident,” Alex is recruited to oversee the dark magical practices and politics of the campus’ societies. As she trains under the watchful eye of her mentor, Darlington, Alex is swept up into a layered murder mystery involving drugs, the Underworld, and the long-dead residents of New Haven. Ninth House is told non-chronologically, adding another level of secrecy, making no character innocent, including Alex herself. This one is very dark, so please double check the trigger warnings before you dive in.
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is one of my favorite classics and a great example of a classic dark academia tale. Dorian Gray has been adapted and recreated many times since its original publication in 1890. The story follows Dorian, a man who has sold his soul for eternal youth, beauty, and power. The catch: all of his aging, blemishes, and sins are projected onto a painting. A tale of moral dilemma, social pressures, and ultimate corruption, The Picture of Dorian Gray is an establishing work in the dark academia genre.
Bunny by Mona Awad is very similar to The Maidens in that it takes place at an elite school that contains a clique of young, prominent women. In this case, Samantha, our main character, is in the same MFA program as this group, who call each other “Bunny.” At first, she is repulsed by the women; after she is invited to one of their infamous parties, her curiosity gets the better of her and she gets sucked into the strange and dangerous world of the Bunnies. Bunny also has elements of magical realism and horror.
Catherine House by Elizabeth Thomas is yet another story about a school with mysterious happenings. Ines begins her time at Catherine House expecting to settle into a quiet routine, but instead encounters the Headmistress’ eccentric teachings. When tragedy strikes on school grounds, Ines is convinced that the house, with its beautiful facade and lush furnishings, is holding secrets beyond her wildest imagination.
A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik is a different take on this same concept. El is accepted into the Scholomance knowing that her life will be at risk the second she steps through the front door. The school has no teachers and no grades; the only way to graduate is to survive the dangers that lurk in the shadows. A Deadly Education is the first book on this list that is technically a teen novel, but it does contain dark themes that make it more appealing for older audiences, as well.
A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee is another teen novel for dark academia lovers everywhere. Like most of the other books on this list, this book contains a foreboding academic atmosphere, magical realism, and a dangerous, secret-filled past. When two girls at Dalloway School begin investigating the school’s ominous past of violence, death, and witchcraft, history begins repeating itself.
Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M Danforth is split between the early 1900s - at a boarding school for girls - and present day - in the Hollywood movie scene. A notorious horror author, whose book was inspired by the events at The Brookhants School for Girls, is being adapted for the big screen. When the two main actresses and the author travel to film at the abandoned school, past and present become twisted and new, ominous details come to light.
Ace of Spades by Faridah Abike-Iyimide is my final recommendation for The Maidens, but it is definitely not the least. Ace of Spades highlights the issues of institutionalized racism by giving readers a front-row seat to the drama and chaos inside an elite private academy. Two talented and ambitious students are targeted by an anonymous texter; private photos and information are leaked, and the two are left to team up and uncover who is behind the leaks before their carefully-constructed reputations are ruined completely.
I hope you have enjoyed The Maidens and the world of dark academia as much as we have. Stay tuned for our August book, Madhouse at the End of the Earth by Julian Sancton, for a tale of survival, danger, and camaraderie.