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. Explaining that quantum quality—and building an argument for why you need to read it—requires me to introduce you to the two main characters from one of the most charming,unique books of the 1980s.
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.
Fantasy? Thriller? Romance?
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. It’s dated, because it involves computer technology circa 1983, but it boils down to a high-tech heist, with the criminals falling out and trying to betray each other and Martha’s daughter caught in the middle. Mayland’s investigation into the disappearance is interesting even stripped of all fantastical elements.
The book has a third weapon in its arsenal: the romance between Mayland and Martha. It’s a unique on a lot of levels. For one, the characters are older (even if Mayland isn’t 20 centuries old, he’s no spring chicken), yet their affair has all the spark and beauty of an encounter between young lovers. Second, the two are so deeply drawn and real, there’s not a single false note in the whole adventure. Somehow MacAvoy gets you interested in whether or not an odd, intelligent, gentle (mad)man and an aging bohemian will get to have another conversation, and then another.
The quantum resolution
What’s the right way to read this book (not to mention the sequel, the equally-charming Twisting the Rope)? Is Mayland Long really a dragon, making this a true fantasy story? I’d argue it doesn’t really matter: if he isn’t, the book remains charming, entertaining, and chock full of ideas, even if that transforms his romance with Martha into something a little more disturbing.
Personally, I land on Mayland truly being a dragon, though the evidence of his magical nature is obscure—he’s stronger and faster than most people, much less most middle-aged men; he heals very quickly from injuries; and in addition to being incredibly intelligent and well-read, he seems to have firsthand knowledge of events that wouldn’t be possible if he wasn’t harboring a dragon’s soul. It’s delightfully subtle, but it’s there, and most readers agreed at the time—the book was nominated for the Nebula and Hugo awards, and won author the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer as well as the Locus Award for Best First Novel in 1984. However you interpret it, Tea with the Black Dragon remains a fabulous fantasy novel with hardly any fantasy in it.