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Vintage Treasures: Tea With the Black Dragon by R.A. MacAvoy

Saturday, May 11th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

Tea With the Black Dragon-small Tea With the Black Dragon-back-small

Tea With the Black Dragon was R.A. (Bertie) MacAvoy’s debut novel — and what a debut it was. It was the book everyone was talking about in 1983, and it was nominated for the Locus Award for Best First Novel (which it won), as well as the Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy, and Philip K. Dick Awards (which it lost to Startide Rising, The Dragon Waiting, and The Anubis Gates, respectively.  You can’t say it wasn’t a year with worthy competition.)

In his 2015 Throwback Thursday article at the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog, Jeff Somers helped re-introduce the book to a lot of modern fantasy readers, with a rather clever description of the plot.

I like to think of R.A. MacAvoy’s marvelous Tea with the Black Dragon as a quantum state fantasy, because it both is and is not a fantasy novel. The waveform collapse occurs inside your head when you read it… Martha Macnamara is a middle-aged, free-spirited musician who travels to California at the request of her semi-estranged daughter, who works in a finance role in the burgeoning California software industry. Put up in a swanky hotel, Martha meets Mayland Long, an older Asian man with elegant manners and a lot of money. Their conversation hints that he was an eyewitness to momentous events throughout history, and counts as close friends many long-dead historical figures. He and Martha strike up a thoroughly charming, adult relationship, instantly and believably drawn to one another. When Martha’s daughter goes missing, Long agrees to assist in tracking her down. Which could be useful, as he claims to be a 2,000-year old black dragon in human form. Boom.

Whether Mayland actually is an ancient dragon is left ambiguous; if you believe everything he tells the reader, then yes he is — he was transformed into human form as part of his quest for “truth” and enlightenment, and he has some nifty abilities to show for it. Even if the dragon element is meant to be real, it doesn’t take much effort to read the story as a straight-ahead thriller with a slightly deranged hero who believes he is an ancient dragon — because the thriller aspect is handled quite well…

However you interpret it, Tea with the Black Dragon remains a fabulous fantasy novel with hardly any fantasy in it.

Tea With the Black Dragon launched an enormously successful career for MacAvoy; she won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 1984, the year after it appeared, and he followed it with a popular sequel Twisting the Rope (1986), the Damiano trilogy (1983-84), the Lens of the World trilogy (1990-93), The Book of Kells (1985, co-written with Sharon Devlin), SF novel The Third Eagle (1989), and others.

Damiano-small Damiano's Lute-small Raphael-small

MacAvoy was diagnosed with a neuro-muscular disorder in the early 1990s and ceased writing for nearly two decades. She recently returned to the field early this decade, although chiefly through small presses. Her recent work includes Death and Resurrection (Prime, 2011), and the Albatross series with Nancy L. Palmer (WordFire Press, 2017-18).

Tea With the Black Dragon was published by Bantam Books in May 1983. It is 166 pages, priced at $2.75. The cover is by Pauline Ellison. It is currently available in both print and digital formats from Open Road Media.

Our previous coverage includes:

The Damiano Trilogy
R.A. MacAvoy’s The Book of Kells by Violette Malan

See all our recent Vintage Treasures here.

11 Comments »

  1. This novel often comes up as a must read. I really must read it sometime. John while I may find myself consigned to a deeper level of the Black Gate Dungeon (cough, basement) for questioning the Intergalactic Overlord (editor) I am a little confused through this article as to R.A. MacAvoy’s gender?

    Comment by Tony Den - May 12, 2019 2:52 am

  2. R.A. MacAvoy (she goes by Bertie in public) is a woman. It’s possible she used initials in the time-honored tradition of disguising her gender, which some may have believed was a liability in the long-ago era of the early 80s.

    There may be an interview out there that addresses the topic. Anyone know?

    Comment by John ONeill - May 12, 2019 10:30 am

  3. I have only one question:

    How have I never heard of this book?

    (Obvious and correct answer: I was starting college the year it was published and rather busy. But still, I read a lot about SF and fantasy, e.g., the Black Gate website, and still missed this.)

    And what I mean by the question is, that sounds exactly up my alley. I will be purchasing it probably mere seconds after posting this reply. Which is why, of course, I keep saying that you’re going to make me poor. It could not have anything to do with my own book-buying proclivities.

    Comment by Allen Snyder - May 12, 2019 11:11 pm

  4. Huh, apparently I *had* heard about it previously, as I already own the Kindle version. Given that the price I paid was $1.99, it sounds like it might have been an Amazon Kindle Deal-of-the-Day, which puts it in the fine company of literally thousands of other books I have purchased—both tree-bound and digital—that I have not yet read.

    So instead of making me poor…this time!…you have merely caused me to move this book to near the top of my reading list. Thank you!

    Comment by Allen Snyder - May 12, 2019 11:16 pm

  5. Allen – sounds like the ideal situation! Instead of selling you on a new book, we sold you on a book you already have. It’s a win-win for everybody. :)

    Comment by John ONeill - May 12, 2019 11:56 pm

  6. I’ve had this on my shelf for ten years or more, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve picked it up, stood there a minute, and put it back. Maybe now is finally the time – I have a long flight coming up.

    Comment by Thomas Parker - May 13, 2019 11:44 am

  7. Always one of my favorites. I know someone who I identified in my mind as Martha, same mannerisms.
    Good to know she is writing again!

    Comment by michaelehart - May 13, 2019 11:46 am

  8. I love her Damiano trilogy and her Lens of the World trilogy, but I’m not entirely sure why I don’t think I’ve ever actually read this one before (despite it being on my shelf in one form or another for, well, decades at this point).

    Is it time?

    Comment by Joe H. - May 13, 2019 3:55 pm

  9. > Maybe now is finally the time – I have a long flight coming up.

    Thomas,

    Depending on how long the flight it, you can probably finish the entire thing before you touch down.

    Better bring the sequel for the return flight.

    Comment by John ONeill - May 13, 2019 4:29 pm

  10. > Good to know she is writing again!

    Michael,

    I felt the same way, and in fact was a little surprised to find her latest work coming out from small presses. I would have thought her return would be a minor publishing event.

    Anyone out there read any of her new material?

    Comment by John ONeill - May 13, 2019 4:31 pm

  11. > Is it time?

    Joe,

    Yes! And then let us know what you think.

    (Also, thanks for the rec on the the Damiano books. I’ve been thinking about reading them for years.)

    Comment by John ONeill - May 13, 2019 4:32 pm


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