Making Money, Terry Pratchett's Nebula-nominated, thirty-somethingth novel in Discworld series, could be a subtitled, "a comic fantasy on contemporary themes," ie the large-scale consensual fraud that is a banking system.
In a sense, Making Money is Neal Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle writ small and funny. I should reveal here that I did not finish The Baroque Cycle. This is also only the third Discworld novel I have read, but enjoyed the other two.
Clearly there has been a lot going on since I last visited the Discworld. Moist von Lipwig, also the hero of Going Postal, was a petty thief and con-man given the choice of facing the gallows, or setting Ankh-Morpork's postal system on its feet. He has now been drafted to reform the Royal Bank of Ankh-Morpork, although there is also a lingering feeling that he has been gently but firmly ushered into a conspiracy to nationalize Ankh-Morpork's banking system. Sound familiar? There's also a mad plutocrat and an enigmatic mystery surrounding the city's golems, who are not Jewish but are definitely indefatigable workers made of clay.
In the ensuing pages, Moist's shrewd grasp of street-level microeconomics once again stands him in good stead (viz the grasp of "sweating" gold currency - jingling it in a bag until it sheds enough gold dust to be usable). To say that he succeeds by liberating Ankh-Morpork from the gold standard sells the book a bit short. Pratchett deftly dramatizes the question "what is money?" in the context of a fantasy novel. Is it gold? Why is it gold, when gold isn't good for anything other than being gold? If it's not gold, what the hell is it? Hint: the symbol of economics is a worn black top hat - a symbol for cheap magic, just sleight of hand really; a dirty kind of psychological magic. Or as Pratchett puts it, "It was a dream, but Moist was good at selling dreams. And if you could sell the dream to enough people, no one dared to wake up."
The comic results of contemporary capitalism mixed in with heroic fantasy - as old as Bilbo's contractual negotiations with a wizard and a band of dwarves - are in full play here. The arrival of a cohort of golems threatens not mayhem, but a labor shortage; an alchemical economic instrument reveals the witchy reversibility of causation between economic model and reality, courtesy a mad scientist (er simulationist-economist) and his Igor.
For all the economic theory in play here, Pratchett makes everything look easy - you get the sense that he's one of the smartest people writing fantasy out there, but he just doesn't feel like showing it off. He is always unbelievably fluid in his prose and the comic aphorisms that seem to flow out of him. Every once in a while he cues his punchlines too noticeably, with an "after all," or an "oh all right then." But it's hard to complain - he also uses the word "hopefully" correctly. Also: "charivari."