To a man traveling on his wits, a newspaper was a useful treasure. Stuck down your shirt, it kept the wind off your chest. You could use it to light fires. For the fastidious, it saved a daily resort to dockweed, burdock or other broad-leaved plants. And, as a last resort, you could read it. — "Making Money"

After 38-odd series novels, teen-targeted spinoffs, picture books and scientific essays, you could forgive the venerable Terry Pratchett, probably the only 45-million-copy-selling author to be compared on his jacket covers to Chaucer, for letting a book or two print itself.

Admittedly, my Third Thought upon picking up the surprise advance copy of "Making Money" rushed to the Herald door was: "Another one?" (My First and Second thoughts, respectively, were: "Mine! Mine! Mine!" and "God bless questionable journalistic ethics!")

All successive thoughts (which are the important ones, as one learns unabashedly devouring the aforementioned teen spinoffs), however, were the same: "Gold. Pure, unadulterated, pineapple-cream-pie-coated gold."

OK, the pineapple bit doesn't enter in until later. A bit of background: Somewhere in the sprawling history of Discworld (it's much like our own, but flatter and with more killer suitcases), a charlatan was hanged. As is not unusual in the cheerfully corrupt metropolis of Ankh-Morpork, he survived, was unfortunately renamed Moist Lipwig, thrust into a golden suit to match his golden tongue and put in charge of the Post Office.

You can, and should, read all about it in "Going Postal," as "Making Money" puts Moist in charge this time of ridding the National Bank of the corrupt Lavish family and their bankrupting Gold Standard. But no advance preparation is necessary, or possible, to comprehend what occurs in the book, not even the time-and-space-collapsing Cabinet of Curiosities and its 11-dimensional hatred of pink. "Why only eleven dimensions?"…"It might be simply that more would be silly."

All that is required is a love of people and the heroic lengths they go to hide their fears, whether of failure, conscience or the unknowable (hence the cropping up in ever-pragmatic Ankh-Morpork of religion-a-month clubs).

Pratchett effortlessly captures the small cowardices and braveries that define us as he narrates in the discovery that the chief bank clerk has Made A Mistake:

The remaining members of the staff looked around warily, like ancient monsters who can see a second sun in the sky getting bigger but have absolutely no idea what to do about it. … By the look of the [Mr. Bent's in-tray] there were about two minutes or less before he was confronted with the message. Suddenly and all at once, they fled for the exits.

But his recent work succeeds also as a historiography lesson, albeit one most applicable to a world that includes a goddess of kitchen supplies. Pratchett conceives the Bank as the center of not only arguments of labor and economic theory, but also a figurative and literal place of worship. The Ankh-Morpork forefathers saw fit to build a temple for a national god to enter, at earliest convenience. If we build it, wilt thou comest? The uneasy trust we put into our uncontrollable globalized economy (without a mad scientist in training, some water tubes and an Igor, at least) is reflected in subtle ways throughout the book, but rather than giving in to pessimism or ineffability, Pratchett turns abstractions into personal struggles, arguing for a system in which a coin is worth "the hand that holds it."

One could fault Pratchett for the fact that the storylines don't really begin to converge until two-thirds of the way into "Making Money." But the somewhat plodding pacing of the opening acts is made up tenfold by the Shakespearian range of intellectual discussion. But the colonial, gender and university politics alluded to in Pratchett's impossibly witty sentences (Whoever said you can't fool an honest man wasn't one.) are always in the background of his beautifully human portraits.

Terry Pratchett's gift is to turn clown murder mysteries and Tyrant Identification Crises into more than devices to compound the farce. Instead, the reader comes to see them as pieces of a literary puzzle, transcending comedy or tragedy to feel profoundly real, even in the dialogue of an apron-clad golem who quotes homemaker manuals.

A comic fantasy series that began as the travelogue of an inept wizard and his aforementioned luggage on the run has become one of our sharpest lenses into modern society — If Unseen University's Department of Postmortem Communications were to call back Marx and Smith, they should have the good sense to bow to their true master.

4 1/2 stars out of 5