February 21, 2013

Review: Cotillion by Delia Sherman

"Cotillion" by Delia Sherman
Featured in Firebirds: An Anthology of Original Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by Sharyn November
Published: 2003, Firebird
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy Anthology
Source: Library book
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During the winter break of her first year at Vassar College, Celia Townsend is presented at the Snow Ball Debutante Cotillion along with other young Upper-East Side socialites. She agrees to come out mostly for her mother's sake, and, while there, ends up meeting Valentine Carter. Valentine seems like the ideal gentleman: charming and proper and vastly superior to Celia's boyfriend Guy. After a wonderful night at the cotillion, Valentine invites Celia to come listen to him play his lute with some other classical musicians the following evening. It is there that Celia realizes that there is more to Valentine than meets the eye, and that, as Janet was for Tam Lin, she is the only one who can save Valentine from becoming the fairies' tithe.

I have a few criteria that must be met for me to be satisfied by modern updates of classic stories: the modern updates must make sense within the context of the original tale as well as the new setting and the author must still hit the certain core events of the story. Basically, I want to still feel a certain sense of familiarity with the story. I view modernized updates not as completely new stories, but as stories that have been slightly adapted to fit in to their new environments. Thankfully, "Cotillion" met all of those marks and then some.

For the most part, the character modernizations make a lot of sense. Celia modernizes Janet's character by becoming a wealthy young socialite in 1969 New York. Valentine is a classical lutenist who lives in the Village. Instead of a powerful father, here Celia must deal with her mother's worries about her traveling to the Village to visit a young man whom she barely knows. The only significant player that could have been better characterized is the Fairy Queen. I definitely got the vibe that she is all-powerful, but her modernization left me more confused than anything else.

I really enjoyed that in "Cotillion" the characters are aware enough of the "Tam Lin" story and able to recognize that they've become players in a new version of it. "Cotillion" is not quite a retelling of "Tam Lin," however. Valentine and Celia take the "Tam Lin" story as a truth. Because they and the fairies all know how "Tam Lin" concludes, Celia's challenges are not the same as Janet's; she must find new ways to outwit the fairies and save the human under their spell.

Not all of my questions were answered, there are some awkward time jumps, and the characterization could have been stronger. Although I did have those criticisms while reading the story, those criticisms fade a little bit when considered in light of the fact that "Cotillion" is a short story of about thirty-five pages. In such a short span of pages, Sherman really has to pick and choose what elements to give significance to. The focus on "Cotillion" is on Celia's desire for a romantic adventure in her life, and how the rescue of Valentine satisfies that. Even more so than with novels, short stories must leave a lot for the readers to infer. Although Celia agrees to the ball and has a boyfriend, she also has these repressed hopes and desires. Readers can leave the short story content with the fact that this event has had enough significance on Celia's life as to assure new changes and future growth.

With all of that in mind, how do I think that "Cotillion" fared? I enjoyed reading this story and identifying how (and trying to guess why) certain aspects of the story were modernized. I do think that the story loses some significance if the readers do not have an understanding of the "Tam Lin" ballad, although it is explained to some degree within the contents of the short story. While not my favorite "Tam Lin" retelling, this is certainly a solid contribution to the field.
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Amanda loves few things better than sitting down with a cup of tea and a book. She frequently stays up far too late, telling herself she just needs to finish one more page. When she's not wrapped up in the stories of others, Amanda works as a children's librarian in a public library.


  1. I do agree that this does sound like a good modernization of Tam Lin from what I remember of your summary. I feel the same as you about wanting a feeling of familiarity from the updated story. It's too bad this one wasn't the ideal retelling though. It's tough with short stories. Probably the reason I tend to stay away from short stories is it never seems like we get enough time to get a feel for the characters.

    1. Short stories are definitely a different sort of animal than novels. I learned that in my creative writing classes. In some ways, they're more difficult because there is SO MUCH MORE that the author would like to tell readers but can't. It is always interesting to see what the author does choose to tell for these retellings, and this short story was no different in that regard. It was a decent short story and is in the middle of an amazing anthology, so I was happy enough.


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