The final installment in Olivia Waite's Feminine Pursuits series, The Hellions Waltz, sees a jaded labor activist and a traumatized pianist coming together to take down a corrupt factory owner and falling in love in the process.
Sophie Roseingrave came to Carriesford after a conman ruined her family and broke her heart. Unable to even play the piano anymore, feeling the ghost of his snake oil machine wrapped around her fingers when she tries, it's all she can do to hide the extent of her misery from her family, who have already suffered enough. After stumbling across what looks like a shopkeeper cheating a weaver, Sophie goes chasing after her into the streets to right the wrong, only to discover not all is at it seems and that it's a lot more complicated.
Maddie Crew is a weaver, a Radical, and one of the leaders of the underground weavers union. With the ban on labor organizing about to expire, and a pressing need to strike and unionize looming on the horizon, the weavers will need to be ready to spring into action. The problem is that to survive a strike, they'll need money, and raising funds before the ban expires will see them all in jail. When the return of a folk hero and old family friend coincides with expansion plans from the corrupt Mr. Giles, plans that would see all the workers of Carriesford trapped under his thumb, an opportunity arises — but it's a dangerous one, one that would see them all transported if found out, and which will require cooperation from all sections of society if its to succeed.
Sophie's discovery of the plan puts everyone at risk. The ruin of her family's business and reputation has given her a passionate hatred for con artists and a fierce desire to protect other people from going through the same thing. Her disinclination to trust makes telling her the truth a dangerous proposition, but after she follows Maddie home, ready to have it out with her in the middle of the night in an unfamiliar part of town, Maddie can't do anything but bring her in. Something which turns out to be the best decision she could have made because Sophie's involvement is what brings everything together, allowing them to pull off the heist of the century and ridding the town of an exploitative parasite to boot.
Sophie and Maddie's relationship is rich, warm, and deeply comforting to read. Starting hot right out of the gate, while they're still filled with suspicion and mistrust toward each other, feelings follow swiftly, overcoming Sophie's reservations and Maddie's long-held defenses. For Sophie, the development of their relationship is slowly unthawing, paralleling, and intertwining with her recovery from trauma. Relearning trust and emotional intimacy as she recovers her capacity to play the piano, both tracks reach their peak with her creation of "The Hellions Waltz," a piece of music dedicated to Maddie, telling their story and expressing everything she feels for the other woman. Like other Olivia Waite novels, the sex scenes are hot and romantic, though they're a sideline to the rest of the novel rather than the main event.
Waite depicts Maddie and Sophie's traumas in distinct, realistic, and sympathetic ways. While Sophie experiences physical flashbacks and intense anxiety, Maddie has developed a kind of hyper independence coupled with rage and a desire for revenge on the entire oppressor class. As Sophie learns to trust and open herself back up again, Maddie is learning to rely on other people instead of trying to take care of everything on her own. This isn't a case of the "magic penis," or rather its wlw version; falling in love doesn't magically fix all of their problems. Instead, the two women put in the work, motivated in part by their relationship and enabled by mutual support.
As far as the heist plot goes, Maddie, Sophie, and their co-conspirators create a wonderfully psychedelic steampunk setup for their con that's an incredible amount of fun to read. The characters are colorful, diverse, and interesting, including a cranky woman inventor, a bisexual polyamorous triad, and a found family made up entirely of bisexual and lesbian weavers.
One of the messages of this novel is that queer people have always found and created community, and ways to thrive, even in hostile places — something capped off by both Maddie's stepmother and Sophie's parents independently working out the nature of the women's relationship and giving them their approval. If you've ever wanted a book that tackles trauma and oppression and still manages to be both heartwarming and sexy, The Hellions Waltz is exactly what you want.