If We Were Idealists: A Guide To The Best Campus Novels

Alicia Lacey

As the new academic year begins and students begin to long for ways to romanticise their walks to campus or having a coffee with friends in the darker evenings; the campus novel seems like the ideal way to settle into your studies. Alicia Lacey shares her favourite campus novels in time for the beginning of Autumn semester.

The campus novel often encompasses nostalgia in an aesthetic location and relatable themes of friendship and belonging in an academic environment. Whether you want to escape from the mundane life of University or immerse yourself in pretentious, parasocial relationships with mysterious characters, now is the perfect time to pick up one of these novels. 

Popularised through social media, dark academia, fantasy and romance are essential genres to the best campus novels. Dark academia takes inspiration from gothic literature – mysterious societies, morally gray characters and buildings rich with history – a University campus is the perfect backdrop for these to emerge. Over the past few years merging dark academia with forbidden romance, dragons and magic, the campus novel has become a staple for autumn and winter readers.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt (Stand alone)

“I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.” Prologue, p.iii

Starting off with arguably the most famous dark academia novel is the 1992 sensation The Secret History. Set in New England, this novel follows the narrator and protagonist Richard Papen as he begins at Hampden College, an elite liberal arts college. He swiftly comes across an exclusive Greek programme with only five other students enrolled. The story begins with a murder and through Richard’s retelling of his time at University, the reader learns of how this came to happen. The novel centres around a group of ostentatious, well-read students; Henry Winter, Charles Macaulay, Camilla Macaulay, Edmund Corcoran and Francis Abernathy. Through the encouragement of their unusual Professor Julian Morrow, the group explore morality, the occult and what separates them from their academic peers.Themes: Social class, isolation, guilt, friendship, love, supernatural, murder.

If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio (Stand alone)

“We were always surrounded by books and words and poetry, all the fierce passion of the world bound in leather and vellum. (I blame this in part for what happened.)” Act I, Scene 1, p.12

A debut novel published in 2017, If We Were Villains follows a similar outline to The Secret History but rather than Greek philosophy, this story is focused on the works of Shakespeare. A dramatic tragedy in the dark academia genre, our narrator Oliver tells detective Colborne the truth about what happened before he was convicted of his friend Richard’s murder. This campus novel follows a five act structure with a suspenseful plot and complex characters in an accredited drama college, Dellecher Classical Conservatory. This book strongly emphasises the friendships between the main characters; Oliver Marks, Richard Stirling, James Farrow, Meredith Dardenne, Filippa Kosta, Alexander Vass and Wren Stirling as they battle between reality and the works of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Themes: friendship, reality, morality, love, academic rivalry, murder, queer representation.

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo (Alex Stern series)

“Death conquers all. But in the margin, someone had scrawled irrumat over vincit, nearly obliterating the original with blue ballpoint pen.” Prologue, p.3

A dark fantasy novel set at Yale University following the protagonist Galaxy “Alex” Stern who can see ghosts (known as Grays). She is recruited by an organisation known as Lethe in the Ninth House due to her special ability. The story develops over a murder of a local girl and Alex sets out to uncover the secrets of the University. Similar to the previous novels, Ninth House is set on a prestigious campus with a gothic atmosphere, but here we introduce magic and fantasy into the campus novel. Through her friendships with her mentor Daniel “Darlington” Arlington and Pamela Dawes, can she uncover what is going on below the surface? Themes: magic, friendship, social class, murder, abuse, drugs.

Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros (The Empyrean series)

“There’s a reason strength is revered among riders. A squad, a section, a wing is only as effective as its weakest link, and if that link breaks, it puts everyone in danger.” Chapter 2, p.46

A less conventional approach to the campus novel is Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros published in 2023. Following from the magical realism of Ninth House, Fourth Wing takes place in the kingdom of Navarre as our protagonist Violet Sorrengail joins the Rider’s Quadrant. An enemies to lovers fantasy novel which takes place in a dragon school where students are expected to complete tasks in order to reach the final stage of first year – potentially bonding with a dragon. As expected of a campus novel, there are challenges Violet must face but not without the help of her friends. Themes: survival, chronic illness representation, love, battle, life or death, perseverance. 

Alicia Lacey

Featured Image courtesy of freestocks via Unsplash. Image use license found No changes were made to this image.

For more content including uni news, reviews, entertainment, lifestyle, features and so much more, follow us on Twitter and Instagram, and like our Facebook page for more articles and information on how to get involved.


Leave a Reply