As the Chinese New Year celebrations start soon, this week I’m recommending  a novel which features an intriguing Chinese character. `Tea With The Black Dragon’ by R.A.MacAvoy was first published in America in 1983. Paperback copies are fairly easy to come by and there is now a rather poorly presented ebook edition. As I’m a polite person, I shall call Roberta MacAvoy’s books quirky. Others might say they were downright odd. Either way, I wish more of her novels were in print. An Urban Fantasy/High Tech Thriller with a dash of Zen Buddhism thrown in, `Tea With The Black Dragon’ was ahead of its time.

The story starts with `mysterious meetings in expensive places’. Fifty year-old musician, Martha Macnamara, has been sent a plane ticket to San Francisco and a reservation in a posh hotel by her daughter, Liz, who works as a systems analyst in Silicon Valley. In the hotel, Martha is introduced to  Mayland Long. He is obviously a wealthy and cultured man but his age and nationality are hard to pin down. Mr Long relates a story about the legendary Thomas the Rhymer, whose son he claims to have known. Martha agrees to have dinner with him, inspite of being warned that when he’s drunk, Long tells people that he was once a Chinese dragon named Oolong.  Long is equally drawn to Martha, who seems to have the simplicity and certainty he lacks and may be the person a Zen Master told him to wait for.

Martha has a difficult relationship with her daughter but she is surprised when Liz doesn’t turn up at the hotel as promised.  She soon discovers that her daughter has `no job, no friends and no forwarding address’. Long accompanies Martha as she visits some of Liz’s former teachers and colleagues at Stanford University, and the boss of Financial Systems Software where Liz used to work. They get conflicting views of Liz and her abilities but someone doesn’t like the questions Martha and Long are asking. Martha suddenly disappears. Have both she and her daughter been kidnapped? With the help of a friendly computer engineer, Long investigates. It begins to look as if Liz was involved in a serious bank fraud. All Long’s unusual agility, strength and endurance are needed as he and Martha face up to villains who are ready to kill to keep their crimes secret.

My fellow cat-lovers should be warned that something nasty happens to a cat in this story. Apart from that, `Tea With The Black Dragon’  is what I would call a civilized read. San Francisco is an ideal setting for Urban Fantasy since it is a city where you feel that anything could happen. The computing element inevitably seems old-fashioned now, though in a few years time it will probably appear quaint and interesting. The crime plot works well enough, and produces some tense scenes, but is not particularly original.  The virtues of this story lie elsewhere. MacAvoy keeps to a small cast and gives each of them a strong physical presence and a distinctive personality. Even a secondary character like shy Fred Frisch, owner of `Friendly Computers’, comes to life in a few lines -`Mr Frisch responded to this praise. He straightened. His silky moustache whuffed. His hands worried a black power cable into circles on the dusty counter.’ Liz Macnamara, who lives in a flat where everything is `sharp angled, glacial pale’, isn’t a straight-forwardly  sympathetic damsel-in-distress. Long sees her as an eaglet, `half pathetic, half dangerous’. Her generous optimistic mother isn’t your standard Fantasy heroine either. Funny how none of the editions of this book have middle-aged, grey-haired Martha on the cover.

In many Fantasy novels, humans seek wisdom from supernatural beings such as dragons. In `Tea With the Black Dragon’ this pattern is cleverly reversed. An ancient and powerful dragon envies human creativity  and seeks for wisdom and truth by living among people. Eventually he finds Martha who `can listen to a person until truth comes out of him’.  For the story to work, you have to believe in Martha, with `her sudden blue flashes of insight’ as a woman of rare spiritual grace. I did.  It isn’t easy to portray someone who is happy and good without making them bland or irritating. I think MacAvoy succeeds because she also allows the reader to see how Liz would find her bohemian mother embarrassing and annoying.

The melancholy Mayland Long is an equally memorable character. At first he could just be a wealthy but eccentric collector with a gift for languages, living in lonely luxury. The sinuous Mr Long’s dragon nature gradually becomes more evident but never fully manifests itself. Hints are dropped about his violent past and in a fight his eyes become `yellow, feral, merciless’ but at times he seems touchingly vulnerable. The swiftly developing relationship between Martha and Long is one of Fantasy’s most unusual love stories. If, like me, you find yourself wanting to know more about this particular black dragon, there is a sequel called `Twisting the Rope’. Happy `Year of the Snake’ to everyone. Until next week…