A Field Guide to Fantastical Beasts by Olento Salaperäinen
A Field Guide to Fantastical Beasts, by Olento Salaperäinen, is a nice if basic introduction to 50 mythological/supernatural creatures, one suitable more for younger readers than older ones (say, high school or up) due to its relatively brief entries and often familiar subject matter.
The guide is encyclopedic in form, dividing the creatures into six basic groups: Fairies and Little People, Demons and the Undead, Water Creatures, Hybrid Beasts, Humanoid Creatures, and The Sacred and the Divine. The groups themselves are organized alphabetically, with each having between 7-10 creatures and 2-4 pages of description devoted to each creature. Each section also has a small sidebar that usually offers up a modern day (and often modern media) use of the creatures, such as how zombies were used in Shaun of the Dead, vampires in Twilight, and ogres in Shrek. A Field Guide to Fantastical Beasts is also lavishly illustrated, with a full-page illustration every other page. Finally, Salaperäinen includes a glossary, bibliography, and index.
Most of the fantastical beasts will be familiar to readers as all the old favorites are here, drawn mostly from Greek, British, and Norse mythologies and the classic monster movies (though Salaperäinen, of course, gives their more ancient antecedents). And so we have gorgons, sirens, griffins and centaurs; dwarves, elves, giants, and trolls; ghosts, mummies, vampires and zombies, to name a few. Non-western cultures do appear throughout, if in fewer numbers. And so we have the Chinese Quilin (head of a lion, body of a deer, a horse’s hooves, an ox’s tail, and the scales of a fish), the Egyptian Sphinx, the Tibetan Yeti, the Australian Aborigine’s Rainbow Serpent, and a few others. Dragons appear, in both their western and eastern forms.
Many of the stories employed will also ring a bit familiar: Aladdin, Rumpelstiltskin, Perseus defeating Medusa, Hercules taking on the Hydra. For younger readers, this won’t be a problem at all as they’ll either not know the stories yet or will appreciate the reference to a story they do know, if only relatively recently or just barely. As an adult, I would have wished for the text to stretch itself a bit more, something I say only to give a relative sense of content and not as a negative criticism, as I don’t believe adults are the target audience here. The same holds true for the brevity of the pieces: as an adult they feel a bit shallow. But for a younger reader they feel just about perfectly sized.
The prose is clear, clean, and fluid throughout. And though I do think A Field Guide to Fantastical Beasts is aimed at younger readers, there’s no sense at all of them being talked down to. Salaperäinen freely tosses around words like malevolent (perhaps a bit too freely with this one), ostentatiously, cuckolded, and the like. Kids might stumble over a word or two, but never lose the gist of a sentence. The illustrations are nicely done: large, colorful, and mostly depict the creatures in action rather as simple poses. For instance, the zombies are staggering (what else do zombies do?), the mummy is sneaking up on tomb-raiders (natch), and Nellie the Loch Ness Monster is swimming beneath a rowboat.
A Field Guide to Fantastical Beasts isn’t exhaustive by any stretch, and I would have preferred a few more out of the ordinary creatures, such as the Quilin (Japanese Kirin) or the Yule Cat (not as innocuous as it sounds). But for a well-written, vividly illustrated, basic introduction to the world of supernatural and mythological beings, the book would make quite the nice gift for a younger reader.