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.
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.
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