Tea with the Black Dragon by R. A. MacAvoy is that perfect piece of holiday pie: small and delicate, with layers of texture that are familiar, yet satisfying. The serving size is just enough to sate the appetite without sickening the stomach with its sweetness. Don’t ruin it by going for another piece; just savor each bite as the competing textures and flavors mingle on your tongue.
This 1984 Hugo nominated best novel is a crime drama/romance that contains just enough of a hint of SF to make it unique. It might be about a thousands-years old, transmogrified Imperial black dragon, or it might be about a senile Chinese man who likes to freak out his bartender.
Retired violinist Martha MacNamara is on the hunt in San Francisco for her mysteriously disappeared daughter. At the hotel, she meets Mayland Long, an intriguing gentleman with amber eyes and personal stories about historical figures. He offers his computer skills to help her track down her computer programmer daughter. Then, Martha disappears, just as Mayland realizes that Martha helped him to fulfill a prophecy. Now, Mayland will do anything, including exposure of his superhuman strength, to rescue the woman he loves.
The best part is the dialogue. Martha and Mayland are both eccentric, almost bordering on preposterous, but their perfunctorily funny remarks to one another keep their personalities grounded. Their worldviews are consistent with their behavior, and it’s no surprise that the two develop such a rapid and easy friendship. Martha is initially warned of Maynard because of his reputation to get drunk and tells people he’s a dragon, but it doesn’t matter to her. “That man is an artist, and conversation is his medium,” is how she responds. “[If he tells me he is a dragon,] I will try to receive such a confidence in the spirit in which it is given.”
My only real criticisms of this novel are of a couple of the writing techniques that MacAvoy employs. The dialogue is witty and rhythmic, but she paragraphs an individual’s dialogue every few sentences, without tags. She uses correct form, open quotes and all, but it’s a technique that has fallen out of favor with modern writers because it can be hard for readers to track the speakers. I found myself going back many times, thinking, Now why would he say that? Oh, SHE was still talking. In the same vein, perspective and scene shifts occur without warning. I like scenes to change by chapters, or at least a triple asterisk mark can indicate the start of a new scene, but scenes ram into one another within the same sections. The changes can be jarring to any reader and, if it were a bad story, I would probably rail the author for such inconsiderate techniques. In this case, the action flows well enough to overlook the problems.
Fans of hard SF might be disappointed if they go in expecting a cyber-mystery. Don’t let the synopsis fool you. This is no Neuromancer (it’s actually the year before Neuromancer changed the world). The cyber bait-and-switch isn’t exactly a marketing ploy; it just serves as a tool for the crime plot, which requires no real understanding on the part of the reader. It’s all pretty vague and jargonless, but it’s not really relevant to the story. This is a romance, wrapped up in a crime drama, wrapped up in a mystery, but it’s tied up in a neat little package of SF. If it didn’t involve an anthropomorphous dragon, I wouldn’t like it nearly as much.
I’m used to Hugo non-winners being pretty blah-worthy, so I was surprised by this little gem. Asimov’s The Robots of Dawn was also on the 1984 shortlist, another enjoyable novel, so I look forward to reading the rest of the 1984 Hugo nominees. It must have been a pretty strong year for the genre.
This is the perfect holiday read. It’s short, sweet, and simple. I read it in one day. If somebody gave you a gift card during the past few weeks, this is what you should purchase for your next read. Savor it on a quiet New Year’s Eve or Valentine’s Day.