5 Dark Academia Reads For Magic School Vibes Without Supporting A Transphobe

By Colette Fitzpatrick

Many of us have been turning to the things we loved in our youths in an attempt to exist in a pocket of nostalgic safety for the length of an album, or a film, or a television series, or a book during this most uncertain and frightening of years (I mean, it seemed like everyone and their dog was rewatching and rereading Twilight during the summer, did it not?). But as the weirdness of this new world in which we all find ourselves trapped becomes increasingly the norm and one we will likely be facing for some time yet to come, many of us have found that we have finally exhausted the list of our ultimate comfort watches and reads and that, maybe, media is not enough.

Many have taken it a step further and, in trying to deal with their new realities, have dived completely into nostalgia-tinged subcultures, have surrounded themselves with the aesthetics of another lifestyle, another world, another version of themselves. Whether you are looking for the wholesome sweetness and crafty passion projects of returning to an imagined simpler lifestyle of cottagecore, you’re looking for the sisterhood and feminine divinity (and excellent all-black looks) of witchtok, or you’re interesting in the donning glasses, elbow-pads and snuggling up with a good book in the leather armchair of dark academia, 2020 is waiting with now widely promoted and highly aesthetic subcultures to adopt both online and IRL.

Dark Academia, in particular, appeals to the bookish kids who had a penchant for a certain boy wizard in childhood, and those who find themselves especially in need of a good read to curl up with while the days get depressingly short. However, if you are like us and, in another devastating blow from the year that just keeps on taking, can’t quite stomach delving into that wizarding world right now due to the recently expressed transphobic views and dangerous anti-trans campaigning of his creator, then read on for some other excellent darkly academic universes that you can visit from your bedroom this spooky season instead…

Ninth House – Leigh Bardugo

Possibly the most representative text among dark academic proponents (alongside Dead Poets Society, obvs), Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House is the author’s first venture into a contemporary world that outwardly looks no different than our own but is just as magical as her Grishaverse series of YA high fantasy novels. Set in Yale University, the book follows the delightfully complex Alex Stern, who has been admitted to the school on a full scholarship due to her ability to see ghosts and in order to help keep the murky and dangerous magical secret societies of Yale under control (and in spite of her checkered past and complete lack of qualifications). Alex juggles struggling to keep up with her classes, running away from her demons and past, and managing the magical misadventures that result from her role on campus with a level of visible, fragile humanity that characters are often not afforded in favour of being able to weather anything as protagonists should. I loved this book but it is worth noting that there are major trigger warnings to be had for sexual abuse and drug abuse and that some took issue with Alex being unlikable (I, personally, love a difficult woman). However, if you’re also a fan of complicated women, discussions of privilege, masterful blending of fiction and fact, and spending the last couple hundred pages of a book pacing around frantically, then this gem is for you. Oh, and Stephen King agrees, saying: “[Ninth House is] the best fantasy novel I’ve read in years, because it’s about real people. Bardugo’s imaginative reach is brilliant, and this story―full of shocks and twists―is impossible to put down.”

Sorcery of Thorns – Margaret Rogerson

Heading to a rather different world and atmosphere, we have Margaret Rogerson’s second novel, Sorcery of Thorns. Raised as a foundling in one of Austermeer’s Great Libraries, Elizabeth plans to live out the rest of her days working as a warden and keeper of magic books when she is accused of a crime that she did not commit. Taken to be investigated, Elizabeth suddenly finds herself out in the big wide world for the first time in her life, and embroiled in a centuries-old conspiracy that threatens the whole world. Charming, less dark than Ninth House, and a proper magical adventure, this is a tale of growing up and stepping up to the plate, even if you don’t feel particularly special or up to the task. Dedicated to, “all the girls who found themselves in books,” this wonderful YA fantasy is fun, joyous, wholesome goodness. I have seen some liken it to the experience of watching Howl’s Moving Castle and I think that a particularly apt comparison as it truly elicits the same kind of childlike glee without being in any way juvenile or without depth. If you’re in the market for magic library vibes and a very fun read, check out this wonderful sophomore outing from Rogerson.

Bunny – Mona Awad

Heading back to something darker and back to another satisfyingly dark academia elite New England university setting, we have Mona Awad’s electric and utterly demented (in the best possible way) Bunny. As with Ninth House, there are themes of feeling out of place, of being unable to keep up with appearances, of being an imposter and there is a lot of privilege at play. There is also magic but it is much more of an acid trip. Bunny is cutting, chaotic, conflicting, darkly beautiful, poetic, wildly funny, and incredibly perceptive. I can honestly say that I rarely had any idea what was coming next and that is very uncommon for someone who has read as many books and watched as much television as I have. The novel follows Samantha Heather Mackey, a student in an exclusive MFA creative writing program who feels very out of place in the elite (and fictional) Warren University. Surrounded by wealthy peers with none of her practical concerns and cutting comments about the writing for which she had always been previously lauded, Samantha feels lost and adrift. Said peers are a group of impressively twee young women who all refer to each other as Bunny (much to Samantha’s ridicule) and from whom she is utterly isolated. Until she is not. Suddenly, they invite her to join their infamous but mysterious, “Smut Salon,” and Samantha ditches her only friend to join them. Soon, Samantha has found herself completely sucked into their lives and finds her own changed forever…

A Great And Terrible Beauty – Libba Bray

Set in a London finishing school in 1895, this YA fantasy novel is the opening book in a trilogy that I was obsessed with in my late teens. Moody and atmospheric, A Great And Terrible Beauty follows Gemma Doyle, a sixteen-year-old who has grown up in India and is then suddenly shipped off to boarding school in England after the death of her mother as her laudanum-dependent father is just simply unable to care for her on his own. While she has a rocky start in school, Gemma manages to befriend three other girls and settle in. However, she is plagued by memories of her mother’s death and the strange circumstances surrounding it, as well as visions of the future that have the unfortunate habit of coming true. In addition, a young man she had met in India has been sent to watch over her and mysterious things start happening. This book is all about that wonderful gothic boarding school atmosphere and pays great tribute to the burgeoning sexuality of teen girls without being overly flowery or cheesy. It is perfect escapism material.

Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro

One of my favourite books of all time, I read this wonderful novel once a year and fail to grow tired of it. Utterly devastating, it messes you up and lingers for days when you finish it but is absolutely worth the existential crisis. While the other entries on this list all contain more magical worlds, this is closer to sci-fi or speculative fiction but features a lot of hanging around in a boarding school in the English countryside that seems normal enough at first glance but is permeated with an atmosphere of everything no being quite right. Once we follow the characters into adulthood both they and we begin to understand the terrible secret behind their lives and education. Giving us all pause to consider what makes us human, this is one of those painfully beautiful books that can change your life and if that isn’t magic, I don’t know what is. Plus, this is a perfect spooky season read as it sheds light on what is scariest of all: the selfishness that all humans are capable of and the cruel acts that can result from it…

So, if you’re looking for a magical, dark academia-tinged world of adventure, terrors overcome, and aesthetic settings to escape into during this particularly scary of Hallowe’ens, then check out these rather special gems.

Looking for more interesting posts? Check out our guide to some of the best vintage stores in Dublin…

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