The Tea Dragon Society
Katie O’Neill (Princess Princess Ever After) has created a wonderful world in The Tea Dragon Society. Outstanding character designs and concepts populate a book driven by a quiet feeling of exploration and discovery that is both relaxing and refreshing.
Greta is a blacksmith’s apprentice, working with her goblin mother. When she rescues a small creature from attackers, she’s introduced to the world of tea dragons. They grow leaves and flowers from their bodies, which are used to brew special teas.
(It didn’t surprise me to learn from this interview that the dragons came first, as sketches, then she built a story around them. It began as a webcomic, which you can read online, but the book gives the story a welcome, appropriate permanence that’s in keeping with its themes.)
Taking care of them requires special effort, and Greta learns from a local master while making friends with another tea dragon protector with an unusual disability that makes her shy. Raising tea dragons is a craft that requires patience, and not many people are interested any more. (Which makes this story symbolic of all kinds of things.) Greta is also maintaining the old ways of blacksmithing, taking pride in hand-crafting beautiful, useful objects in spite of the potential of her skills to become obsolete.
The large-format hardcover gives The Tea Dragon Society the feel of a picture book, which suits it. O’Neill doesn’t use black lines, relying on colors to establish boundaries, which is lovely and a little dreamy. The pages are rich in imagery, sinking the reader into her fantasy world. The chapters are seasonally-based, providing a natural overlay and indicating the passage of time. Valuable experiences come with the investment of time, says the book, a welcome reminder.
The tea dragon masters are retired adventurers whose lives took a different turn than expected, another resonance of the themes of time passing, sharing experiences and memories, and investing in the care of another. (Although not foregrounded, they are another example of LGBTQ relationships in O’Neill’s stories, demonstrating that books for all ages can have this kind of diverse content.) O’Neill has the confidence to frequently use silent panels, relying on her characters to convey emotion and action.
The characters have more potential than we see on the page; this is a book of world-building, with unusual abilities and an underlying message of friendship, openness, and learning. It would be great to spur creativity in a young reader, encouraging them to imagine their own kinds of tea dragons or what else the characters may do afterwards. The additional material in the book, providing more information on care of dragons and profiles of eight different kinds, will be appreciated for such activities.
Oni has announced that they will be releasing The Tea Dragon Society Card Game this summer with Renegade Games Studios. That sounds like a terrific idea, capturing the beauty of the dragons and the appeal of the pretend pets and extending O’Neill’s world in another way. The deck-building game by Steve Ellis & Tyler Tinsley is intended to be kid-friendly (ages 10 and up) and great for families.
Each player’s deck represents their own Tea Dragon. From turn to turn, players will choose to draw a card, triggering effects and strengthening their position, or buy a card, improving their deck or scoring points. The game takes place over four seasons, starting in spring and ending in winter. At the end of winter, the player who has the most points is the winner.
It comes with a comic version of the rules so players can get started quickly. MSRP is $20 and can be played by 2-4 players in 30-60 minutes.
O’Neill’s next book will be the all-ages Aquicorn Cove, due out in October, also from Oni Press. It’s described as follows:
When Lana and her father return to their seaside hometown to help clear the debris of a storm, the last thing she expects is to discover a colony of Aquicorns — magical seahorse-like residents of the coral reef. As she explores the damaged town and the fabled undersea palace, Lana learns that while she cannot always count on adults to be the guardians she needs, she herself is capable of finding the strength to protect both the ocean, and her own happiness.