By Bill Sheehan,
author of "At the Foot of the Story Tree" and co-editor of the recent anthology "Lords of the Razor"
Thursday, September 20, 2007
By Terry Pratchett
Harper. 394 pp. $25.95
In the fractured cosmology of Terry Pratchett, Discworld appears as a flat, disc-shaped planet carried through space by four enormous elephants and a giant turtle named Great A'Tuin. On Discworld, magic and lunacy flourish in equal measure, propelled by a heterogeneous populace that includes dwarves, trolls, golems, werewolves, vampires, imps and humans. Out of these elements, Pratchett has fashioned 36 novels in less than 25 years. (The first, "The Color of Magic," was published in 1983.) Individually, each one functions as a self-contained, often boisterously funny whole. Together, they constitute one of the most successfully sustained acts of comic creation since the heyday of P.G. Wodehouse.
Over the years, a number of independent story lines have developed within the larger framework. These include stories of Sam Vimes and the City Watch ("Monstrous Regiment"), Granny Weatherwax and her coven of witches ("Wyrd Sisters") and the cowardly wizard Rincewind ("The Light Fantastic"). In "Going Postal" (2004), Pratchett introduced a promising new protagonist, Moist von Lipwig, a professional confidence man who has made a lucrative career extracting money from the rich, the greedy and the gullible. When we first encounter him, Moist is in prison and about to be hanged. At the literal last minute, he receives a reprieve from Lord Havelock Vetinari, reigning tyrant of Ankh-Morpork, Discworld's principal city. Vetinari offers Moist what seems like an easy choice: Restore the city's moribund postal system to an acceptable level of efficiency or die. Moist, of course, chooses the first option, and becomes embroiled in a lethal web of plots and counterplots that could only happen on Discworld.
Having successfully negotiated the pitfalls of the Ankh-Morpork civil service, Moist now makes a second, and very welcome, appearance in "Making Money." As the story begins, he finds himself unpleasantly becalmed. The postal system is running smoothly, he is now a respectable citizen, and one of his innovations -- the adhesive stamp -- has become a universal form of currency and has ushered in a wildly popular new hobby: stamp collecting. With so much going right, Moist grows increasingly despondent. Accustomed to life on the high wire, he finds himself mired in bureaucratic hell, attending endless meetings where "people could use terms like 'core values' at him with impunity." Once again, Lord Vetinari, master strategist and manipulator par excellence, comes to the rescue, offering Moist a new and challenging position: Master of the Royal Mint of Ankh-Morpork.
Traditionally, the Master of the Mint also holds a senior post in the city's Royal Bank. This dual role gives Moist the authority to pursue Vetinari's latest agenda: revitalize an antiquated, dysfunctional banking system and drag Ankh-Morpork's ailing economy into the 21st century.
Moist's ultimate goal may be clear, but the path to that goal is not. In typical Discworld fashion, problems arise from all points of the compass. First, there are the machinations of the increasingly deranged Cosmo Lavish, who plans to replace Lord Vetinari as the city's ruler and regain control of the bank and its assets. (For complex legal reasons, the chairmanship of the bank has passed to Mr. Fusspot, a dog with a fondness for plastic sex toys. Don't ask.) Other complications include the appearance of a blackmailer from Moist's shady past; the delicate emotional state of Mavolio Bent, indispensable chief cashier of the Royal Bank; and the disappearance of 10 tons of gold bullion from the Royal vault. The bullion, which provides the backing for Ankh-Morpork's spurious gold standard, has gone missing on Moist's watch, leaving him to face the legal and economic consequences.
Much of the fun of "Making Money" comes from watching Moist overcome these various obstacles through a combination of wit, guile and style. A veteran con man, Moist understands that style is virtually everything. Give the people a decent show and they'll follow you anywhere. Pratchett knows this, too, of course, and his romp through the labyrinth of high finance is typically outlandish fun, though there are a few bumps along the convoluted way. Pratchett can't resist building easy jokes around Moist's peculiar name. And occasionally, as in his description of a Cabinet of Curiosities with magical properties, the comic exposition goes on too long, impeding the narrative flow.
But these are minor flaws in an otherwise polished, supremely confident performance. After all these years, Discworld remains one of popular fiction's most reliably demented venues. Like the best of its predecessors, "Making Money" balances satire, knockabout farce and close observation of human -- and non-human -- foibles with impressive dexterity and deceptive ease. The result is another ingenious entertainment from the preeminent comic fantasist of our time.