Tea with the Black Dragon by R.A. MacAvoy ~1983. This edition: Bantam, 1987. Paperback. ISBN: 0-553-23205-3. 166 pages.
My rating: 7.5/10
My first introduction to contemporary fantasy writer Roberta Ann (R.A.) MacAvoy was through her alternative world fantasy, Lens of the World (1990). That novel was so satisfactory that I went on to seek out the other two books in the Nazhuret trilogy, King of the Dead (1991) and The Belly of the Wolf (1993).
Now actively chasing down MacAvoy’s work, I was more than pleased with her lone science fiction attempt, the imaginative The Third Eagle (1989), and her epic alternative-Renaissance fantasy trilogy published in 1983-84: Damiano, Damiano’s Lute, and Raphael. Then followed the Celtic-themed The Grey Horse (1987), and The Book of Kells (1985).
Eventually, going back to the beginning at the end, as it were, I finally read MacAvoy’s 1983 debut novel (and likely her best-known work), Tea with the Black Dragon, and its 1986 companion, Twisting the Rope.
Then, after that creative 1983-1993 decade, nothing, except for a brief 2005 novella, The Go-Between (re-published in slightly different form in 2009 as In Between), both of which I have sporadically searched for but so far have been unable to obtain.
Doing another routine online search this past month hoping to perhaps come across a printed copy of either of those titles, MacAvoy’s name lit up the page. She’s back in the game, with a brand-new full-length novel: Death and Resurrection, December 2011, in softcover or ebook from fantasy, science fiction and “cross-genre” publisher, Prime Books. Death and Resurrection apparently includes The Go-Between as its first episode, so I can now neatly round off my to-date R.A. MacAvoy collection.
Bibliographical introduction over, I will now focus (briefly! – I need to learn to condense these rambling reviews somewhat – I do tend to run on) on Tea with the Black Dragon, which I have just re-read for the somethingth time with the usual quiet enjoyment. It is not my favourite MacAvoy work by a long shot – that position is jointly filled by Lens of the World and The Third Eagle, which I cannot choose between – I love them both equally for very different reasons – but a few hours spent with Oolong and Martha is never a bad thing.
The internet abounds with longer reviews so anything I say will have already been said, and often much more cleverly, elsewhere. Here is my take.
Middle-aged Martha Macnamara, classical violinist turned Celtic fiddler, has been sent for by her grown daughter, Elizabeth (Liz), with an urgent request for them to meet and talk.
Landing in San Francisco after her flight “racing the sun” from New York, Martha is mystified to find that though her own room in a luxurious hotel is booked and paid for, her daughter has apparently vanished. Not sure how to proceed, and not knowing anything of the pressing concern which Liz wanted to share, Martha falls into an acquaintanceship with a mysterious silk-suited, Eurasian-appearing older gentleman staying at the same hotel, one Mayland Long.
An immediate positive chemistry results, and the two are off on a quest to find Liz which results in a delving into the fledgling 1980s’ computer subculture of Southern California, and encounters with several unlikely gun-toting villains.
More of a suspense thriller than a classic fantasy, the world of Black Dragon is instantly recognizable, if somewhat dated by its 1980s’ references. The fantasy element comes into play as we find out that the mysterious Mr. Long is (perhaps?) the human form of an ancient Chinese Imperial Dragon, with unexpected but rather useful abilities.
An unlikely but perfectly satisfying love story is at the heart of this novel, and that is what we are left with, long after the rather forgettable computer-fraud plot and gunshots and car chases are forgotten. Intriguing Zen references (Martha is a zazen practitioner; Mayland has a long history of association with Buddhist Zen masters) added to the quirky tone (in the very best sense) of the story.
Very much a first novel, with the expected flaws, but there is a certain something about this story that keeps it close to the front of the book stacks. In interview, MacAvoy has said that plot does not interest her as much as characterization and conversation. One can definitely see that in all of her books, what gaps there are tend to be plot-related, nowhere quite as evident, though, as in Black Dragon; the plot is decidedly contrived, and it is interesting to see how this author has dealt with her predilection to concentrate on character in her subsequent novels.
This novel seems to have a very strong fan base on internet book review sites; a bit puzzling as there is not much there; it’s a slender piece of what might be classified as “urban fantasy” mixed with old-style “thriller”. But it shows this author’s strong promise and unique literary voice, more than fulfilled in her later works. A very thoughtful writer, with a strong sense of humour, though she unflinchingly puts her later characters into positions of deep despair and is not afraid to realistically portray tragedy.
For those of you interested in “official” opinions, Tea with the Black Dragon was nominated for the Phillip K. Dick, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards. MacAvoy won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Science Fiction/Fantasy writer in 1984.
Recommended, with the reservation that this is not MacAvoy’s strongest work despite the (sometimes) gushing fan base.