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Top Tropes of Romance Literature: Dark Academia Edition

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • October 20, 2022

From elite boarding school settings to secret societies to purveyors of the dark arts, dark academia romances feature some standard (yet sexy!) tropes. And for some of us, these juicy scenarios are exactly what bring us back for more. Here are some of our favorite tropes from the genre.

Books + Secrets = Love

It should come as no surprise that dark academia stories often involve bookish types. Romance develops naturally between two characters who share the same obsessive interests. This is the general idea in one of our all-time favorites, the Booker Prize-winning Possession by A. S. Byatt. It is the story of two young scholars who are titillated by the discovery of a clandestine love affair between two long-dead Victorian poets.

Magical, mystical libraries also figure prominently in these tales. In The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern, Zachary is a graduate student who discovers an ancient library hidden far below the surface of the earth. He makes new connections and discoveries as he explores the twisting tunnels, darkened stairwells, crowded ballrooms, and sweetly soaked shores of this enchanting place.

For an erotica-fueled bibliophile experience, try A Lesson in Thorns by Sierra Simone. When Poe takes the job in the crumbling library of Thornchapel, she's not prepared for the seductive pull of the ancient mysteries she will uncover there or the powerful connection she will find with Auden, the tortured owner of the estate.

United Against Evil

For an enemies-to-lovers romance with a twist, Kelly Andrew's The Whispering Dark, Delaney is the gifted student of a prestigious university program that trains students to slip between parallel worlds. When a Godpole student turns up dead, she must form a tenuous alliance with the arrogant, charming Colton as they find themselves plummeting down a rabbit-hold of deeply buried secrets.

The Devil Makes Three by Tori Bovalino offers a YA version of this scenario. After accidentally releasing a devil from an ancient book they find hidden under their school library, Tess and Eliot are forced to work together to find a way to retrap him before he kills everyone they know and love, which includes, as it turns out, each other.

Elite Boarding Schools

Nothing says dark academia like a campus setting, particularly at a formal boarding school. One of the best of these is Never Let Me Go by Nobel Prize-winner Kazuo Ishiguro. In a dreamy dystopian world, three former classmates reconnect as adults. Together, they try to understand what it was they were being prepared for at the mysterious Hailsham Academy. This novel was adapted into a 2010 film starring Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield.

Plain Bad Heroines is a horror-comedy set at a New England boarding school for girls. Emily M. Danforth weaves together parallel storylines divided by over a century in this wickedly whimsical tale of sapphic love and rebellious young women.

In Looking for Alaska by John Green, two boarding school students form a strong connection over their shared obsession with poetry and death. But tragedy awaits in this YA romance. We also enjoyed the TV series adaptation.

Bonded by the Dark Arts

Protagonists in these kinds of stories are sometimes grappling with the emergence of mysterious powers. Confused or frightened by their strange new abilities, they may seek guidance from those who have more experience with such things. In A Discovery of Witches, the first in a series by Deborah Harkness, Diana Bishop is a young scholar who realizes that she has inherited some serious magic from her witchy ancestors. In order to make sense of her new reality, she must rely on the help of sexy vampire geneticist Matthew Clairmont for help. This one has also been adapted into a thrilling series.

In Maggie Stiefvater's YA series opener, The Raven Boys, Blue has never been able to see the spirits of the soon-to-be-dead like her clairvoyant mother—until now. When Gansey walks out of the darkness and talks directly to her, she is drawn into a strange and sinister world.

Secret Societies

Dark academia stories often involve nefarious clubs. Often, these groups harbor dark secrets and perilous schemes like those featured in Very Bad People by Kit Frick and Legendborn by Tracy Donne. In both of these novels, the protagonists are young women who infiltrate powerful secret societies with the goal of finding out the truth about their mothers' deaths. They struggle to determine whether the secret society is good or evil. And now, you can pre-order Bloodmarked, the sequel to Legendborn, which comes out on November 8.

As always, we love to learn about good books from our readers. Let us know if you have any dark academia romances to recommend.

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