The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is possibly the world's oldest historical novel. It is certainly one of the grandest. Written in the 14th century, it depicts a critical period in Chinese history corresponding roughly with our 3rd century. For four centuries the Han dynasty had taken Chinese civilization to heights of culture and power comparable to the contemporaneous Roman Empire. Then, as the Han's leadership faltered, everything collapsed. Revolt tore the countryside apart, local rulers seized power for themselves, and the emperor became little more than a figurehead under the control of a series of ambitious ministers and eunuchs. Gradually three kingdoms emerged, roughly equal in size and strength, each determined to conquer the others and restore the empire.The principal character is Liu Pei, a man of the imperial bloodline dedicated to restoring the legitimate Han monarch. Liu, a man of impeccable honor and modesty, has sworn a bond of duty and friendship with two mighty warriors, Kuan Yu and Chang Fei. Their principal opponent is the crafty and resourceful Ts'ao Ts'ao, a minister who has seized the reins of power from the weakling emperor. But these are only a few of the hundreds of characters who people the Romance, and, as the story spans more than a century, they will have long left the stage by the time the novel comes to an end.For the most part, the characters in the novel are monarchs and military leaders, and the plot consists almost entirely of military campaigns and political intrigue. (The word "romance," by the way, refers to a fictional form, not to love, and there are no major female characters in the novel.) Think of the Iliad on a vastly grander scale. Most battles begin in the same fashion: The two armies take formation opposite one another, each sends out its champion, the two fight until one is killed or runs away, the loser's army loses heart and falls back, the victors pursue and slaughter the losers. But within this formula there is infinite variety. Every campaign features some new stratagem or deception. Cunning and trickery almost always win out over mere strength and courage. Generations of military and political leaders have used the Romance as a guidebook for strategy and tactics. Fifteen hundred pages of military campaigns and palace revolt sounds incredibly repetitious, but the author manages to surprise and delight us with some new twist in every chapter. Anyone with an interest in Chinese history or literature should definitely read this novel. Those who are fond of classical epics and Arthurian legends will probably enjoy it as well.The edition I read was the translation by C. H. Brewitt-Taylor published by Tuttle. There may be newer and better versions. The prose is highly readable, but there are numerous typographical errors in the text. And the romanization of Chinese names is based on the Wade-Giles system, which has since given way to the Pinyin. This makes it difficult in some cases to relate historical characters and places to modern texts and maps. (For example, the name spelled "Ts'ao Ts'ao" in this translation is now rendered as "Cao Cao" in Pinyin.) So I would recommend that you read the reviews of other translations before deciding which edition to buy.