This oversized volume is the best illustrated and generally most useful work on the theory and practice of heraldry that I have seen in some time. The author is an acknowledged expert in the subject and this is his culminating work. There are two main sections: History and Language of Heraldry and Applications. The first section leads the reader through the origins of heraldry, notes the various ways it developed in different cultures (not just in Britain or even Europe, but also in Japan and other parts of the world), explains the official status of heraldry and the function of the herald, explicates the coat of arms in all its many facets and in enormous detail, explains the extremely specialized language used (based on medieval French), and then addresses the "messages and declarations" by which the possessors of heraldic achievements made use of them. Each of these topics is further divided into brief chapters -- fantastical arms, complex quarterings, blazonry, alliances, and so on.
The second section, which is largely organized by geography, considers royal and noble heraldry, civic and nationalist arms, the spread of heraldry to other parts of the world (especially those areas colonized or conquered by European nations), and the place of heraldry in today's world. Considerable attention is also given late in the volume to the art of heraldry, the modern design of arms, the gradual replacement of arms by logos, and the use of heraldry as a political weapon.
Every glossy page provides well-written and accurate text, but at least half of each page is taken up by full-color heraldic paintings, photos of badges and other regalia as well as people making practical use of arms, and technical drawings and charts explaining the elements of an achievement and the descent of arms. In many of its sections, especially state and civic heraldry, the choice of illustrations is necessarily limited to a representative selection, but they are more than adequate to make the author's point. While there are a number of technical and classic works in heraldry which the specialist might regard as earlier purchases, this volume is the one I would choose if I were looking for a gift for someone with a general interest in the subject.
NOTE: This work is to be preferred to _The History and Meaning of Heraldry_ by the same author, and also published by Hermes in 2004. The later work appears to be only half the length of the title under discussion, even though the publisher says it was "previously published" as _The Complete Book of Heraldry_. Note also that the identical complete text appears as the second half of _The World Encyclopedia of Flags and Heraldry_ (Hermes, 2007), sharing the volume with Znamierowski's excellent _World Encyclopedia of Flags_. The _Complete Book_ was republished without apparent alteration in 2010.