The first thing you need to know about the Minecraft Beginner's Handbook is that it's not a tutorial. Not by a long shot. If you try and use this as one, you'll have died a dozen times before you even figure out how to dig your own shelter (page 24: Shelter).
It is a handy guide, filled with factoids that you'd probably figure out on your own but it's just easier to find them out early on. Things like chickens lay eggs every 10-15 minutes or that digging straight up or down is just a bad idea. However, it's not really built for reference either, lacking an index or any sort of system that allows you to jump to the info you need. The layout is beautiful. It's a lovely book but ultimately, not practical for any kind of actual, live play.
In fact, the best way to think of this book is as a gift for someone who loves you but doesn't understand Minecraft. Your mum, perhaps, or your significant other. Any poor soul who has to watch you digging holes for hours on end, knowing that you're desperate for more redstone but not what it actually is or why it's important.
For that sort of situation, it's perfect. There's the occasional story of people's first days in Minecraft to make you feel better about your own abject failure and convince them that it's not you, it's the game. There are a couple of interviews with Mojang staff. There's a bestiary which is particularly handy, listing all the passive and aggressive creatures with tips on what they drop when you mercilessly slay them. I would have preferred some info on what conditions each needs to spawn but hey, that's what the Minecraft Wiki is for.
You could, I suppose, read it cover to cover and then jump into the game as if it were a manual. But who does that any more?
The book itself is an A5-ish hardback with gold leaf embellishment (is that the word? Is there an official name for that size? I'm not a book reviewer) on the cover text and the pickaxe. The pages are nice and thick, so if you're thinking of getting it for a young'un just about to embark on their Minecraft adventures, it should withstand quite a bit of abuse.
Really though, it's more of a collector's item. Something to gaze at on your shelf in years to come when Minecraft has grown far beyond these mere internet hobbyists and become an essential part of everyday life. You can gaze back on this book and give a nostalgia-filled smile as you think of the days when there were only ten passive creatures and five NPC villagers.
Seriously though, at an RRP of £7.99 it's a pretty good deal for Minecraft fans and people who have to put up with Minecraft fans.
The Minecraft Annual 2014
The Minecraft Annual is, weirdly enough, a much better reference book than the Beginner's Handbook while checking in at exactly the same RRP. I suspect this is probably due to its size – it's just a hair wider than standard A4, so the designers could, e.g. fit a full passive creature bestiary onto one double spread instead of two.
There's room for a useful exploded diagrams showing the useful things you would need in a house (crafting table, furnace, bed, chest, torches) as well as a double spread of all the basic tool recipes at a handy glance. The middle of the book includes handy instructions on how to build useful things like a nice cottage and a mob spawner trap. Damn, where was this book 3 days ago when I encountered my first mob spawner and this happened?
The rest of the 72-page book, however, is clearly geared as some kind of children's workbook. Among other things, there's a word search, some papercraft templates, a maze and a Ride the Pig game, a larger version of which you can see in this video I made of the Minecraft exhibit at the V&A Museum last month.
I guess Minecraft is this generation's Beano or Dandy.