For one thing, the photography of the artwork is fantastic - the book is worth acquiring for that alone. Secondly, the commentary is by the greatest names in the field, including an introduction by Michael Coe. Thirdly, the book never strays from academic discipline, unlike a great deal of New Agey-type material written about the Maya. In fact, the book studiously avoids making any observations that cannot be substantiated - perhaps a reaction in the field of Mayan studies against the sometimes too pat assumptions that Eric Thompson made when he dominated the subject. Fourthly, it covers all the major cultural features of the Maya, providing abundant commentary on each piece of art portrayed. Last but not least, it tackles the thorny subject of Maya iconography. This is a field about which we already know a great deal more about now than we knew in 1986, but in fact if the book were written today there is probably very little that would actually be changed.
The book was printed in Japan, for some reason. No harm in that - the Japanese have a tradition, and a reputation, of producing quality bindings and excellent photographic reproductions, both of which are evident in this edition and which add to the quality of the book. I can't recommend it too highly to anyone interested in the Maya.
The book makes clear the Mayan Kings were not Emperors. They were rulers of city-states that competed with one another. They also had a spiritual role in the life of those they ruled. This book discusses how one became a Mayan King, life in the court, the role of bloodletting and visions (hallucinations?), warfare and human sacrifice, the all-important ballgame, the Mayan concept of afterlife and Xibalba, and the Mayan view of the cosmos. All fascinating topics and the articles are written quite well. I find them to be a captivating read.
The selection of images for the book is fabulous. This book can make a wonderful coffee table book, they are that beautiful. However, the articles are far superior to most books you find on coffee tables. I remember seeing Maya Blue (the shade that the Mayans painted on a great many of the monuments and sculptures) for the first time in this book. Having seen it in person since then I can tell you the shade is captured very faithfully in the photographs in this book.
Much has been written since 1986 and new discoveries and new examinations of existing discoveries deepen our understanding of the Maya. But this book still stands strong and valuable. It is not too technical for the general reader and still has value for the student. I am glad to have my copy on a shelf of favorite books.