Three Kingdoms is, for the uninitiated, a (partly fictional) account of the events leading up to the transition from the Han Empire to the Jin Empire in China during the last part of the 3rd Century. The story is, in the Far East, an iconic tale, with characters and events spawning idioms and influencing the actions of strategists, general and rulers for centuries to come, not to mention the countless media interpretations, such as the John Woo movie 'Red Cliff' and the video game 'Dynasty Warriors' series.
The entire story covers almost 100 years, and the breadth of characters and affiliations in the era is so great that it was inevitable - in addition to bias - that the carriers of the tale would caricature most of it to create a simple 'good vs. evil' tale. So, once the several hundred pages of set-up are complete - which is good in itself, as the united heroes face rebel Yellow Scarves, scheming eunuchs, evil Dong Zhuo, valiant Lu Bu and arrogant Yuan Shao - the story turns into a struggle between the virtuous Liu Bei, the treacherous Cao Cao, and the opportunistic Sun Quan. But it's the supporting cast that really make the story work; the iconic Guan Yu and Zhao Zilong, the semi-comedic Zhang Fei, and the multi-gifted strategist Zhuge Liang carry Liu Bei's cause, fearsome Zhang Liao, enduring Zhang He and the Machiavellian Sima Yi fight for Cao Cao, while the jealous genius Zhou Yu, painfully noble Huang Gai and prodigy Lu Xun support Sun Quan. And that's nowhere near all. None of the portrayals are historically accurate - some being downright unfair - but it makes an epic read nonetheless.
The main attraction is the lack of that aforementioned simplicity, however; the Wu kingdom provide the Liu Bei cause with the ally they need to defeat Cao Cao at Red Cliffs, but end up being the cause of his downfall later as the two sides argue over the provinces of Jingzhou. And after that, well... read and learn. The 'plot twists' of this 3-way power struggle are pretty much the bait and hook, with the fate of Guan Yu needing especial mention.
It has to be said, however, that for some readers, the style may be uncomfortable (not to me personally, but other people I have shown the book to have said this). The story often shifts between the different groups, sometimes covering three or more sets of characters at once, and many amount to nothing more than exposition. This version also features a lot of translations of poems and sayings that can, to anyone not interested in Chinese culture, seem superfluous. The final 15 chapters also lack the scope of the earlier ones, as all of the main characters are no longer present for whatever reason. Repetition is something else I hear aimed at this novel; well, history has an annoying habit of repeating itself, with generation after generation refusing to learn from very-well-documented mistakes. This is, in fact, part of the point the novel makes, with mistakes seen at the start being repeated by the next generation at the end, with similar consequences.
All in all, this is a book I actually returned to more than once, and there's enough to keep a person looking for depth and scope reading for a long time to come (it's already been a staple read in China for 1700 years, so there you have it!).
But for 'Reader Lites' out there, there are other ways to enjoy the story... other book translations, John Woo's Red Cliff, subtitled copies of CCTV's 82-part TV series, and I even understand there's a graphic novel version if you know where to look.
Either way, give this tale a try; you won't be disappointed.