Martha MacMamara has had a strained relationship with her computer programmer of a daughter, Elizabeth. When Elizabeth sends her a plane ticket and a reservation to a hotel in San Francisco, however, Martha is drawn west to find out what is going on in Elizabeth’s life. Martha’s arrival coincides, however, with Elizabeth’s outright disappearance. With Martha unable to find her daughter, the help and aid of a mysterious Chinese gentleman may prove to be a most fortunate and propitious meeting. For, you, see, Mayland Long is far more, and far older, than he appears, and the perspicacious Martha recognizes this right off. And so one of the most interesting and powerful relationships in the history of SFF novels is born.
Tea with the Black Dragon is R.A. MacAvoy’s 1983 Nebula and Hugo nominated novel. On the strength of the novel, MacAvoy won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 1983. The novel won the Locus Award for best first novel in 1984. It’s a short novel, most especially by modern standards, and aside from the richness of the writing to slow you down, it goes down as a very fast read (or re-read).
Tea with the Black Dragon is indeed at its basics a mystery, and a heist, and the uncovering of the details of both, as the reader, along with Mayland and Martha, finds out what Martha’s daughter has been up to. Elizabeth has gotten herself into quite a pickle, and in typical fashion, there really is no honor among conspirators and thieves. The bulk of the novel, however, focuses on Long, for Martha soon, too, goes missing in the search for her daughter, and the roused, transformed Black Dragon finds that he, too, must turn investigator. Mayland Long, the Black Dragon, as an elderly Chinese dragon, makes for a rather unusual and special sort of ad hoc private detective. He’s not human, but he is no Superman by any means, as a scene between him and one of the antagonists in a cat and mouse gun fight in a house, aptly proves.
I think that the novel’s success in the 1980s is its enthusiastic and interesting use of computer technology. Computer technology and thinking about it and where it was going was not sui generis to Tea with the Black Dragon of course. Stories like True Names by Vernor Vinge explored computer technology and its applications, and that novel is at the threshold of the rise of the cyberpunk movement. Instead, the computer technology we see in this novel was cutting edge and interesting, then, and is now a marker of the historical time and place. At the time, however, it must have been catnip to readers. I came to the novel in the late 80s, when computer technology had already moved on a couple of generations, but the novel’s enthusiasm for using such technology as an essential element of the story is as timeless as, say, an Agatha Christie novel’s conventions. And it’s eternally funny that a dragon, an ancient creature millennia old, would have a fascination for such new technology.
In addition to the running-like-clockwork aspects of the mystery and its fascination with computer technology, the novel really is about the burgeoning relationship between Martha and Mayland, as we learn about Mayland’s nature, and his history, and his fascination for, and with, the world of the humans that he himself has come to embody. From his stories of the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma to discussing knowing the son of Thomas the Rhymer, to discussions of the etymology of his own name, the novel richly draws the two main characters together in a mutual web of a growing relationship. Even novels today that are character focused so intensely as this usually don’t try and develop a relationship between characters far removed from their teens and early twenties.
Until recently, finding a copy of Tea with the Black Dragon would have involved a likely arduous quest in secondhand bookstores. Long, long out of print, Tea with the Black Dragon is now available again, both as an ebook and as a paperback. Tea with the Black Dragon is a short, but bottomless, cup of strong and flavorful black tea. I strongly urge to take your fill of the novel. MacAvoy has written other novels (including a sequel, Twisting the Rope) but this remains her best.