Note: I apologize in advance for the formatting and the layout of this post. My computer is getting repaired, so I’m writing this post on my smartphone (for the past week, I’ve been doing just about everything on my smartphone). So, instead of trying to type up an entire review here, here’s the first of a new post series. After I get my (repaired) laptop back, any and all missing links, categories, and tags will be added to where they are needed.
Academia narratives are nothing new; in fact, as long as there have been stories for children, some of them have settings that were a school (more about that in a future post). In other books, school and/or education were mentioned, but as part of the (child/teen) character’s daily life.
In fantasy and other speculative fiction genres, The Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin and all of the Tortall books by Tamora Pierce presented the ideas of magic schools and how their students would gain their education there. In recent (literary) years, Harry Potter and The Magicians propelled the idea of magic schools to a height of popularity to all readers. However, what many readers tend to forget is that these schools are appealing, but that doesn’t mean their curriculum is “easy.” There are consequences for not performing well in these schools, and expulsion is not the only one.
Nowadays, we’re getting more and more books from the established subgenre: Dark Fantasy Academia. This genre delves into the darker aspects of attending a magic school. One of the most obvious elements within this subgenre is secrecy. Only the students, the teachers and the professors, and the alumni (those who survived) know about the school, its location, and its curriculum. Just like how our schooldays contain learning in class, interacting with peers and instructors, and dealing with the good, the bad, and the bizarre occurrences that happen throughout the school year, this subgenre focuses more on the darker incidents that happen at these schools, and the expectations these schools have for their students.
As many of you know, I’m OBSESSED with Vita Nostra, the first book in the Metamorphosis series by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, translated by Julia Meitov Hersey. The first book is about a high schooler who is “recruited,” and later on “coerced” into attending a university where failure has deadly consequences. As the protagonist and her peers continue their studies, they are “changed” to the point where they cannot survive in our society.
After having my mind blown away by this book, I started seeking out similar ones. That was easier said than done. And yes, we’re getting the sequels by the Dyachenkos and Hersey; yet, I kept putting off the few books I did manage to find that remind me of Vita Nostra (Assassin of Reality releases later this year). Now, with both Babel and Alex Stern having immense popularity, more readers are looking into dark fantasy academia. I have some catching up to do as well, so here are some of the books of this subgenre I hope to read this year.
Babel by R.F. Kuang
The latest entry for this subgenre is a book I did NOT get to read when it was released towards the end of last year. I did read the Prologue and it sets the tone for the sort of historical fiction it’s supposed to be (I’m familiar with British Imperialism and its legacy). Based on the description of the characters and the description of Oxford University, this sounds more like a commentary on higher education in modernity than in the past.
Alex Stern, Book 1: Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
We jump from one international Ivy League University to another one. This first book in the series takes place at Yale University. And, it delves into occult practices in addition to higher education. At the time of this book’s release, I read the first ~30 pages of this book and it’s very interesting and that’s just about the secret society. With the recent release of the sequel, Hell Bent, it seems we’ll learn more about the hidden power the organization is trying to obtain.
The Legendborn Cycle, #1: Legendborn by Tracy Deonn
I read this book for the 2021 SCKA (which, won “Best Debut”). However, I read this book as an awards contender, so this will be a reread for me. The protagonist applies to and is accepted into UNC-Chapel Hill’s Residential Program for High Schoolers who are seeking to earn college credits. After she gets in, her mother dies and she attends the program so that she’s not alone with her memories at her home. Shortly after arriving, the protagonist witnesses a strange occurrence. When someone there spells her to forget, she instead regains the memory of what happened to her mother on the night she died. The only way she’s going to get any answers is to join the elite organization on campus. The sequel, Bloodmarked, was released at the end of last year and apparently delves more into the darker history of the organization.
The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins
This was the book just about everyone recommended to me after I finished reading Vita Nostra. I did read around the first 50 pages and it’s very similar to Vita Nostra. Orphan children are adopt by a man who educated them by having each child study a “subject” to master. When the children become adults, their father disappears and they are led to fend for themselves at the place where they grew up.
The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean
So, this book is more of a horror academia work than a dark fantasy one. I didn’t get to read this book after it’s release last year, but everyone whose read it can’t stop praising it. From what I understand, the protagonist is from a family where they consume knowledge literally by eating books. However, there are gender expectations (a.k.a. stereotypes) about who can read/eat which books. When her son is born and it becomes known that it’s not books he craves, mother and child flee from the only place they’ve ever known. So, I want to say this book is about the darker side of education?
So, these are the Dark Academia Fantasy (and Horror) books I want to read this year. I said in my first post of this year that I want to read some of my backlog, and it happens that I have 5-8 books which are all from the same emerging subgenre. Right now, I am reading one of those books (you all know which one), and I’ll be reading the books on this list along with their sequels. Also, with the exception of Legendborn, all of these books are meant for Adult readers. That being said, I believe older Teen and New Adult readers will enjoy these books as well. I will highlight Dark Academia books—not necessarily fantasy or horror—in a future post. In another future post, I hope to write a literary essay about this subgenre, too.
Which Dark Academia Fantasy books have you read? Which books did I leave out from my list that you want other readers to read?
Wish me luck with my computer repairs.