landmark urban fantasy #2: Tea with the Black Dragon by R. A. MacAvoy


Judging by the number of ratings on Goodreads, Tea with the Black Dragon isn’t as well known as its contemporary, Little, Big; a pity as I think it’s by far the more accessible of the two, and therefore a better introduction to the ‘urban fantasy’ subset of science fiction. At a quarter the length of Little, Big and with a much simpler plot, it’s less likely to confuse readers who aren’t familiar with urban fantasy, and (I think) is one of the works that led to the term’s invention.

As the book begins, Martha McNamara has been called out to San Francisco by her daughter, Elizabeth. Elizabeth, a brilliant computer programmer only recently graduated from graduate school, has fallen in with a group of ‘modern day’ bank thieves, who use not guns and masks but rather the then-cutting edge computer programming used in banks to skim considerable sums before fleeing one skip ahead of the banks’ auditors. Elizabeth, thinking better of what she has done (not least because she is the the only obvious suspect) calls upon her mother for help but does not explain why. Martha, mystified, begins the search for her daughter, aided by a somewhat peculiar man, Mayland Long who claims to be an Imperial Dragon now transmuted into human form. Upon Martha’s kidnapping as a result of her investigation, Long continues the search. The book does end happily…

Fantasy it most definitely is, in the classic as well as the modern sense, and it flips more than a few old tropes on their backsides: an old dragon meets the modern wizardry of computers and all the programming that they’re capable of, and conquers them. It’s very different from the other works of MacAvoy’s I’ve read; the majority of her (not terribly large) output is more the traditional pseudo-medieval setting more typical of sword and sorcery fantasy–I think she’s better known for the Damiano trilogy. If you prefer that style of writing, you might not like this one.

While the intervening years have made the technology more than slightly outdated, the book’s still fun to read. (Just insert modern computer processing, if that bothers you.) At heart, I think this is worth reading for the subtext: true love is not just for the young and thin and beautiful. Not only do the middle aged Martha and [mumbles about age] Long themselves fall in love, the daughter Elizabeth comes to know a geeky classmate sufficiently to think she might want to spend her life with him. Almost thirty years after its publication, it should come as no surprise that the technology in the book is now ridiculously outdated; flash/thumb drives have many times the memory of the computers in this book, and computers’ processing speeds are orders of magnitude higher. That said, I think the basic technologic precepts of the book are still sound.

In short, this and Little, Big are the books to which I compare modern urban fantasy.

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2 thoughts on “landmark urban fantasy #2: Tea with the Black Dragon by R. A. MacAvoy

  1. I read “Tea With The Black Dragon” 22 years ago, on my honeymoon. (What does it say about us that we hit a bookstore, bought a book apiece, and retired to our hotel room with our loot and room-service pizza?) It’s possible that I’m fond of it because of the circumstances under which I met it, but I particularly enjoyed Mayland immediately ID’ing Martha as his long-sought teacher, and Martha being ridiculously, “Yeah, whatever, look at this NEAT STUFF that’s happening around us!”

  2. Sounds like pretty much what my husband and I would regard as the perfect start to a honeymoon too, frankly–I’m sure that wouldn’t surprise you. Martha’s irrepressibly cheery nature struck me, too; Mayland’s so terribly serious and Martha’s distracted by the little radio controlled car and the college students bicycling past and what have you. That was part of the fun of the book for me too.

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