The Blockbuster Fantasy Hit of 1989!
The Deed of Paksenarrion, by Elizabeth Moon. Published by Baen Books.
During my adolescence, I read and re-read Tolkien's Lord of the Rings Trilogy multiple times until I could recite dialogue, knew the history and geography of Middle-Earth like it was my own neighborhood, and even learned to write dwarfish and elfish runes. One thing I never did? I never wondered about the citizens and subjects of the kingdoms that the heroes were defending. I never wondered how warriors learned their trade, or about the economic realities of caravans. I never examined the world to see if it made sense.
In 1989 I read Sheepfarmer's Daughter, the unfortunately-named first book of the Deed of Paksenarrion trilogy, and for the first time I could see how a Tolkien-esque world could hold together, blending heroic fantasy with a soldier's-eye view of the epic struggles in the land. I could see how a single adventurer could make a difference.
The Deed of Paksenarrion tells the story of a, yes, sheepfarmer's daughter who joins a mercenary company because she wants to be a warrior. The first volume details her days as a recruit and soldier for Duke Phelan's Company, learning her trade while encountering fighters both good and evil, wicked plots, and magical spells for the first time. The second book, Divided Allegiance, has Paks adventuring on her own, training as a paladin candidate, and being tormented by evil forces. The final volume, Oath of Gold, sees her recover from her ordeals, attain her full paladin's powers, and use them for the purpose they were intended. It's an epic that sprawls over an entire continent, mixing personal battles with world-spanning political conflicts, and it is a textbook example of how high fantasy can be fleshed out to create a world that feels entirely realistic and believable.
In these books, mighty heroes rub shoulders with militiamen from the local village. Wizards are in the hire of noblemen, and their magic has real-world limitations and restrictions. Evil people live side by side with good people, and most folks are somewhere in between. Paladins aren't born--they are trained, then approved by the deity they serve. Fighters must learn their skills doing boring drills and practice, and sometimes they die or become crippled while trying. Not only does this saga recall Tolkien, but I found myself thinking more than once that Elizabeth Moon must play Dungeons and Dragons, because it's all there--fighters, clerics, thieves, magic-users, orcs, dire wolves--all couched in a detailed world that just makes sense. The village of Brewersbridge, in books 2 and 3, reminded me strongly of the old dungeon module, T1-The Village of Hommlet, right down to the ruined keep that Paks and her party assault.
Some readers may have difficulty with Moon's prose. She focuses in detail on the landscapes, the history and the lives of people in her world, and at times that slows the narrative to a crawl. But those who invest the time and patience, or those who enjoy this much detail, will learn a lot from it. Game masters in particular will find a wealth of ideas to steal outright and put into their games. So if you haven't yet read this series in the 25+ years since it was published, go find it, and Gird's Grace upon you.