Jan 25 2010 2:49pm

The tea, the statue, the dragon and you: R.A. MacAvoy's Tea With the Black Dragon

When I first read Tea With the Black Dragon I had never tasted Oolong tea. Now I have a special pot for it.

Tea With the Black Dragon is an odd but charming book. It’s the kind of book that when someone mentions it, you smile. It’s unusual in a number of ways. It’s set at a very precise moment of the early eighties, which can be deduced from the very specific technology—but it’s a fantasy. It has an action-adventure plot with kidnapping, embezzlement and early eighties computer fraud—but that’s secondary to what it’s about. (If ever a book had plot to stop everything happening at once, this would be it.) One of the major characters is a fifty year old divorced single mother who may be a boddhisvata. Another is a Chinese dragon. The whole book is infused with Chinese mythology and CPM era computers. It’s very short, barely a couple of hours’ read, which was unusual even when books used to be shorter.

This was MacAvoy’s first novel, and it received a lot of attention. She won the Campbell Award for best new writer in 1984. The book won a Locus Award for best first novel, and was nominated for the World Fantasy Award (losing to The Dragon Waiting). It was also nominated for the Hugo and Nebula (losing in both cases to Startide Rising). It had a special citation for the Philip K. Dick Award, essentially coming second to The Anubis Gates. So a great many people liked this book and I expect they’re all smiling to think of it. I think a great deal of the popularity and acclaim came from how lovely it is, and the rest of it came from how amazingly unusual it was in 1983 to have a fantasy novel using Chinese mythology and with a Chinese protagonist. We were parched for it and delighted with it when we got it. I can remember being excited by what seems to me today to be charming, but quite slight. We’ve come a long way.

MacAvoy is a hit and miss writer for me—when I love her books I really love them, and when I don’t I get bored. I think I’ve read at least the first volume of everything she’s written. She’s notable for using unusual cultures and mythologies, and also for doing her homework. The direct sequel to Tea With the Black Dragon, Twisting the Rope, is one of the ones I don’t care for.

My next-door neighbour, who posts here as Cybernetic Nomad, pointed out a very interesting thing about this book. Science fiction went straight from Multivac to Cyberpunk, without really pausing at the stage of breadboards and CP/M hand-written word processors. Fantasy however did, we have in Tea With the Black Dragon a precise snapshot of an era of computing history. (I could also add Hambly’s The Silent Tower to this, with the evil wizard’s brain coded in CP/M on computers that ran on despair, an idea later fully implemented by Microsoft as Windows 95.)

As in 1983 I was struck by the fascinating use of Chinese mythology, it’s worth mentioning that on this read I was a little surprised that everyone apart from Mr. Long was white—surely there were Asian geeks in California in the eighties? The Stanford students are described as all bicycling, but also all blond. Very odd.

The central questions of the book are “what does it mean to be human” and “what is truth”—not small thing to tackle in a first novel, and MacAvoy deals with them well, and in a manner that suits the central Zen theme. What it means to a dragon to be human is a question people don’t ask often enough.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

1. BlueRose
Yes I smiled as I read this - a truly delightful book.

This was another one of the books constantly praised back in my early days on rasfw and I made a point of finding a copy. Imagine my delight!

Like you I didn't like Twisting the Rope, its darker and has some unpleasant scenes in it.

I must go and find my copy and reread :)

I always remember this line "you are nothing but dust on the floor!"
ennead ennead
2. ennead
I love this book. I read it after coming upon
this inspiring review.

Coincidentally, the same reviewer/site introduced me to Wizard of the Pigeons too, which you mentioned recently.
Kate Nepveu
3. katenepveu
I adored this book when I first read it. I have been wary of re-reading it in case one of the Suck Fairies visited it, but maybe it's time to risk it.
4. JanniLS
I loved this book so so much back in college. My memories of it now are hazy ... probably time to reread.
Jo Walton
5. bluejo
Kate: I was afraid of that too, but I enjoyed it.
6. OtterB
I smiled too. And as you said in your title, the statue. The cover image you posted didn't have the statue. I always wanted a statue like the one on the original cover.
p l
7. p-l
Science fiction went straight from Multivac to Cyberpunk, without really pausing at the stage of breadboards and CP/M hand-written word processors. Fantasy however did...

This is funny. Wasn't there an Orson Scott Card fantasy story in which the narrator was programming a C64 or a Tandy or something, and writing for Compute!'s Gazette?

Come to think of it, there is one major SF story that uses Donkey-Kong-era technology: Press Enter
Bruce Cohen
8. SpeakerToManagers
"Charming" is exactly the right word for this book. I first read it when it came out, shortly after spending several years working in Silicon Valley (part of it on CP/M computers, so the resonance was even greater for me). Kate, I re-read it just last year, and while the specifics of the time seem a little quaint, the book holds up well: it's just as delightful now as it was in the '80s.

I also don't like the sequel anywhere near as well, but there are other MacAvoy books that I like just as much: "The Third Eagle", and the "Lens of the World" series. One thing that MacAvoy does very well is to write about extraordinary people in ways that make them believably extraordinary. The protagonists of "Tea with the Black Dragon" are both very special people(?), and that specialness is brought out by the writing. The narrator of "Lens of the World" is supposed to be a genius, one of the most intelligent people in his world, and you get that impression from his words.

And by checking Wikipedia, I just found out that there is a new MacAvoy novel, "In-Between", published last fall in hardback. It looks from the description on like an expansion of "The Go-Between", a short story published in 2005.
Tex Anne
9. TexAnne
Lens of the World is a *series*? Oh joy!

Yes, I'm smiling, and yes, I bought my first packet of oolong because of this book. And yes, I still want a statue like the one on the original cover.
10. Foxessa
I loved this novel!

When I read it I didn't drink either tea or coffee.

These days are different, and all my tea comes from Chinatown.
Bruce Cohen
12. SpeakerToManagers

Yes indeed. "The Lens of the World", "King of the Dead", and "Winter of the Wolf" (also called "The Belly of the Wolf"). Do me a favor and let me know when you've read them all; I'm curious to hear what you think of them, especially the last one.
Tex Anne
13. TexAnne
SpeakerToManagers: I'll be delighted, just as soon as I've procured the other two!
14. EmmaPease
A book to savor. I liked it among other reasons because I live a short distance from many of the scenes and been in and out of the CS department she describes (for those familiar with Stanford, CS was housed then in Margaret Jacks which now houses Linguistics and English).
15. sunjah
I am smiling now...broadly. Thinking of Tea With the Black Dragon makes me feel like I am remembering an old crush that never went sour. On the other hand, I find I have almost no recall of Twisting the Rope, although I know I read it.

Re white students at Stanford. The ugly rumor I heard as an Asian American applicant in the 80's was that there were (unofficial?) caps on admissions for students of East Asian ethnicity.
Paul Andinach
16. anobium
From what I remember of the one and only time I read 'Twisting the Rope', a big part of the problem was that it felt... "pointless" is not the word, but there didn't seem to me to be a reason that story was about those characters. 'Tea with the Black Dragon' is Martha's story, and the dragon's, and without either it would be very different or (very likely) no story at all; but 'Twisting the Rope' felt like a story that just happened to have them in, that could have happened to a wide subset of just about anybody.
Clifton Royston
17. CliftonR
coded in CP/M on computers that ran on despair, an idea later fully implemented by Microsoft as Windows 95.

You just made my day, quite apart from the lovely review of a lovely book. (I would quibble that it was Windows 3.1 which most truly embodied CP/M fueled by despair.)

I too haven't reread it in a long time, wondering if it would stand up. I think I'll go dig it off the shelf once I finish the current stack.
18. rdbrown0au
Twisting the Rope had no tech element to it as I recall.
Is it interesting that both Tea with the Black Dragon and Hambly's Dragonsbane had darker sequels - or just the nature of series?

The computer in the Silicon Mage was a Cray - at the time from reading Comm. ACM & IEEE Computer I would have suggested a Connection Machine, but Cray would have resonated better as the big fast computer for most readers and may still do so.
Discordant tech weakens otherwise enjoyable books - "This is Not a Game" has an "author is not a programmer" hole, it needn't have had.
19. selidor
This sounds like a lovely book. I shall have to search it out.

The book I most remember as being linked to a particular era of computing is Diane Duane's High Wizardry. It's practically a love poem to the Apple IIc+ (which I had never seen). It was also the first book I'd ever seen where the young female protagonist was an ace computer programmer, and had astronomy and aliens sensawunder to burn.
Jo Walton
20. bluejo
Selidor: I remember a friend of mine of rasfw saying it was easier for him to believe in horses as a sensible form of transport than in the Apple IIc as a magic computer.

I'm very fond of High Wizardry.
Lawrence Hardin
22. lawrencehardin
TexAnne: The ISFDB (Internet Speculative Fiction Database) at ( ) is an invaluable Favorites link for SF readers. Just type in the name of an author and it will return their bibliography (organized into series!). For Roberta Anne MacAvoy, just click on
Greg Morrow
23. gpmorrow
I adore Tea. But I will urge everyone to read Lens of the World. I am inclined to say that it is the first fantasy novel I enjoyed as an adult enjoys a book. It is complex and rich, in story and theme and character and prose style, yet easily in reach of my rather lowbrow tastes.
Greg Morrow
24. gpmorrow
And now I go look and see that there is a new MacAvoy book, the short novel "The In-Between". Score!
25. avitzur
I, too, smiled as I read this. I adored the book when I first encountered it as a Stanford student in the 80's working in the valley. In a recent re-read (thank you, Kate!) it retained all its charm. Curiously, though I know I read the sequel at the time, I can recall nothing of it.
26. Tree 53
Yep, I've been grinning all thru the review and the comments! I adore this book, have re-read it at least several times; it cheers me (and yes, it holds up to re-reading).
Twisting the Rope I did not like the first time--I was looking for another "serving of Tea", and it is definitely not that. But for me, it got better on re-reading--and years later, re-reading again, just looking to "spend some time" with those wonderful characters, and now I actually appreciate Twisting too. It some awkwardness (and darkness) that's so *entirely* lacking in the magical little book of Tea, but sometimes life's like that...
I didn't realize the Lens series was hers, and I will definitely look it up.
Walter Underwood
28. wunder
I just found The Third Eagle and I'm halfway through and liking it more and more, and a "MacAvoy" search found this.

For certain people, this book spoke directly to our life.

I lived a half mile from some of the locations in this book when I read it. I was programming computers and discovering the link between programming and Chinese (or Japanese) asceticism. "He placed the saucer and cup neatly on the floor, atop the second volume of Knuth." It was like watching a play, the book stood up and walked around me.

... it’s worth mentioning that on this read I was a little surprised that everyone apart from Mr. Long was white—surely there were Asian geeks in California in the eighties? The Stanford students are described as all bicycling, but also all blond. Very odd.

I started working in Silicon Valley in 1981, and there really weren't many Asians in tech at the time. Thinking over my first ten years out here, half at a military contractor and half at HP, I can remember fewer than ten Asians in my departments. Pretty evenly split across China, Korea, Japan, and India.

Blond Stanford students? Dude, they were all surfers! The sun bleaches out your hair, radically. I'll watch for this on the re-read, this was probably a jab. We love to taunt Stanford.

As for the "CPM hole" in SF, what is weird is that True Names was published two years before Tea with the Black Dragon.

Right now, I am so happy that there is more MacAvoy that I have not read.

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