R.A. MacAvoy,
Tea with the Black Dragon
(Bantam, 1983)

About halfway through Tea with the Black Dragon, you may find yourself wondering where the fantasy is. Stick with it -- the fantasy is coming, and it's worth the wait! Meanwhile, sit back and enjoy R.A. MacAvoy's seductive powers of description and characterization. This isn't a book that grabs you by the throat and takes you on a wild ride of adventure; rather, it slowly winds around your brain and then gradually tightens the intensity to an almost unbearable pitch.

Much of the book reads like a non-fantasy suspense novel. Martha Macnamara, a fiddler in a Celtic band called Linnet's Wings, arrives in San Francisco at the request of her computer-genius daughter Liz. Liz has called for her mother's help in some sort of mysterious trouble, but seems to have disappeared. Instead, Martha meets the dapper and enigmatic Mr. Mayland Long, a wealthy collector whose hoard includes an exquisite Chinese statue of a black dragon. The hotel bartender whispers to Martha that, when drunk, Long sometimes claims to have been a dragon once himself.

Mayland Long has come to San Francisco from Taiwan in search of a Zen master, as a result of an old monk's prophecy. In the meantime, feeling that his life lacks involvement, he joins Martha in her search for Liz. Their quest takes them into the fantastic new world of computer programming, where they meet a variety of colorful characters as they slowly uncover an ingenious plot. Then Martha disappears, Liz is found, and Mayland Long becomes the only hope for both of them.

Nearly half the book spins out the events of a single incredible night and morning as Long races against time to save Martha and Liz. The conclusion is both unexpectedly poignant and deeply exhilarating. After reading the final paragraph, you may be tempted to turn back to the first page and read the book all over again. A second reading is extremely rewarding: the book seems to shift as if seen through a prism, and many details and clues that pass by unnoticed the first time suddenly spring into focus and take on new meanings.

The book is a mere 166 pages long in paperback, hardly more than a novella, yet MacAvoy packs a wealth of material into that small space with a deceptively relaxed and meditative style. She manages to touch on such diverse subjects as Zen Buddhism, the nature of humanity and the intricacies of computer programming security while laying out the plot elements with a sure hand. Each of the characters is chiseled with breathtaking economy and precision. Some of these California computer scene portraits may seem dated now, yet their very datedness gives them a timeless and fantastic quality, like a world preserved in amber.

Tea with the Black Dragon is, alas, out of print. However, I highly recommend making the effort to pick up a used copy or order it through a public library.

[ by Juliet Youngren ]