Elizabeth Moon once started thinking about how an RPG paladin would behave in "real life". (The paladin in a role-playing game is "a holy knight, crusading in the name of good and order, and is a divine spellcaster." )
The result of her musings was a series of novels that began with the trilogy The Deed of Paksenarrion: Sheepfarmer's Daughter, Divided Allegiance, and Oath of Gold. The final novel, Crown of Renewal, caps a 10-novel series of rich and layered complexity.
Throughout the trilogy, readers of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings novels will recognize beings and attitudes that populated Middle Earth. Soldiers and travelers mostly get where they are going by walking. Occasionally, nobility and the wealthier merchants and guild members will ride, but only the wounded ride in a cart. Roads leave carts mired in mud and soldiers splashed to the hips whenever it rains. Freezing and wolf-attacks threaten travelers in snowy climes.
Magic-making and religion are closely tied: Wizards and paladins call on their holy heros ("Gird" and "Falk", for example) to access their powers, evil mages evoke direr beings (the spidery webspinner Achrya, for example, or Liart Master of Torments) to call their magics into play. Of course, the higher gods (the Lady of Peace, the High Lord, Adyan the Namer, Sertig the Maker, and so on) behave for the most part as such beings usually do, staying aloof and omniscient from the mortal world once the initial creation is finished.
By the way, you're even more likely to recognize elements of Paksenarrion's world if you are familiar with role-playing a la Dungeons & Dragons. After all, the novels grew out of Moon's rejection of the priggish way most players interpreted the Paladin role. So while Gird's and Falk's paladins have powers that come straight from the defined D&D role, their sense of "good" and "right" is appropriate to Moon's fictional world.
Two "pre-quel" novels, Surrender None and Liar's Oath, are bundled into the omnibus volume Legacy of Gird to spin the back-story of Gird and the history of the world of Paksenarrion. Even though these precede The Deed of Paksenarrion chronologically, I don't recommend reading them first—they will have something of a spoiler effect!
Events subsequent to The Deed of Paksenarrion occupy the final five novels, collectively Paksenarrion's World Chronicles or Paladin's Legacy. It is not until the penultimate or the final novel that dragons return to the world, leaving me wondering if Paks' time is before or after the time of Tolkien's hobbits.
The following contains spoilers for those who have not read the early novels in this series!
Paksenarrion Dorthansdotter is the daughter of sheep-farmer Dorthan Kanasson. Unwilling to marry a local pig-farmer, she runs away to join a mercenary troop. As her recruit cohort marches south to fight in a neighboring country, Paksenarrion (Paks, as her fellow soldiers call her) is unaware of the larger battles that await her.
The lands through which the mercenaries march are troubled: orcs menace them, dark elves threaten them, traitors and evil wizards lay plots that will overturn their planned strategies. Paks must walk the narrow path between the necessary violence of her career as a soldier, and the excesses of cruelty and vengeance that claim some of her fellows—and threaten to overwhelm her commander, Duke Phelan.
Sheepfarmer's Daughter provides plenty of foreshadowing for Paks' development of the qualities of character that will culminate in becoming a paladin of Gird. (Gird is a historical hero/paladin, not worshipped so much as used as a shining example and an intercessor with the higher gods.)
Divided Allegiance continues Paks' growth as a soldier, as she leaves the Duke's command to take training as a knight in the order of Gird. The growth of her character, though, is interrupted by several horrendous experiences that leave her scarred and cringing from every danger. This is a much darker novel than Sheepfarmer's Daughter: humiliation, torture, and even rape are some of the disasters overtake Paks as a "free blade" and failed paladin-candidate.
The final novel of the initial trilogy, Oath of Gold, expands the action from Paks' homeland and the areas of conflict in the south, to the half-eleven kingdom of Lyonya, which is missing a prince. Paks is fully a paladin now, though she was never knighted. Her powers appear to come "directly from the High Lord and the Lady of Peace", among others. Her experiences in the previous novel give her a better understanding of the misery endured by those who do not have the ability to fight for themselves.
At last, her gods "call" her to restore the lost prince to his kingdom, but first Paks must surrender herself to torture by the forces of evil in order to allow the prince—her old commander, Duke Phelan—to gain his throne. The story is thrilling to the end.
All ten novels are now available for Kindle (the early three only in the omnibus volume). Reading them in the wider sense, using the Kindle's ability to look up the names of the beasts and peoples peculiar to Paks' world, reveals the wealth of allusion that Moon has brought to her richly imaged universe.
Or you can do as I did originally, years ago, and read The Deed of Paksenarrion and the Lord of the Rings trilogy in short sequence. Now, you can also realize upon finishing it that you have more than two-thirds of the series ahead of you!