The Paladin: one of the most commonly reviled or mocked character classes in Dungeons and Dragons, a Paladin is a warrior who fights for the sake of their deity, gaining certain mystical abilities from their god in return. Often depicted as the classic Knight in Shining Armor, Paladins in RPGs often were played as either Lawful Stupid (so goody-two-shoes that they could be easily suckered into lethal confrontations), or as arrogant Knights Templar, well-intentioned extremists willing to go to ANY lengths to accomplish what they believed were their goals and commandments from their people. "Munchkins", of course, would play them simply for the sake of their Special Powers and ignore all the restrictions and requirements of the character class.
Such depictions often damaged the character type's reputation with gamers; the proper way for such a character to behave is to be a representative of wisdom and good, using their armament when diplomacy fails. But there were precious few old books, and no new novels, depicting this…
… until Elizabeth Moon wrote Sheepfarmer's Daughter, Divided Allegiance, and Oath of Gold, which together comprise the trilogy of The Deed of Paksenarrion.
Deed of Paksenarrion follows the eponymous sheepfarmer's daughter, Paksenarrion (known more familiarly as Paks) from the time she runs away from her home to avoid a stifling arranged marriage and a grinding life of farming, through her initial adventures as part of the military and her slow discovery that she has, somehow, been Chosen by Gird, one of the gods of her world, to become a Paladin. We see Paks learn to fight, to survive, to understand her world… and find a place in it she never expected.
Elizabeth Moon writes much of Paks' early military experiences from her direct knowledge; she was in the United States Marine Corps for four years and is a student of history, and her depictions of the military are accurate and fascinating as we see them through Paks' eyes.
When I had the fortune to carry on a short email conversation with her some years ago, she confirmed the fact that what triggered the creation of Paks was hearing people playing D&D and playing a Paladin "wrongly"; she didn't go into detail but my guess would be either Lawful Stupid or Opportunistic Bastard (munchkin). This caused her to think "the chosen warrior of a god would NEVER act like that", and from that, naturally, to think about what such a character would be like.
Paks is an extraordinary character in many ways. One of the most obvious is that there is, essentially, no "romance arc" in the book. There are a few people obviously attracted to Paks, and one point where she could easily have married for both love and high station, but she finds herself more drawn to the mission itself – to be a Paladin, a warrior who rights wrongs, seeks out injustices, and is the first on the lines in the defense against evil.
Again, as in many of my reviews, I am trying not to spoiler things too much, otherwise I could say a great deal about Paks and her journey. Paks goes through the wringer multiple times, including one so terrible that it very nearly breaks her forever. She also has many Crowning Moments of Awesome, as she slowly comes to demonstrate that she is as extraordinary as anyone might expect, and so humble overall that she almost never admits her superior capabilities.
As the novels had their genesis in a reaction against badly-played RPG paladins, it is not a surprise that the books have elements from RPGs present in them; it was obvious to me that part of "playing fair" with the Paladin concept was to take the defining elements of the RPG paladin and make them WORK in the context of a living, breathing world. The world Elizabeth Moon designed has all the standard elements in them, but – at least in my opinion – she takes all those elements and makes them her own, breathes a life into them that makes her world seem more solid and real than many other fictional worlds; in some ways, it seems more realistic than Tolkien's Middle-Earth, because she addresses some parts of the world (military, support/supply and trade, for instance) in a manner that makes sense and emphasizes that this is a universe filled with real, living people who love, and fight, and die, sometimes painfully.
It is inevitable that I sometimes think of Paks in connection with Kyri from Phoenix Rising, since both of them are, in RPG terms, Paladins – holy warriors of their gods. I invented Kyri a couple of years after Paksenarrion was first published, but I was unaware of the existence of the book until several years later, so there's no actual direct connection. But they do have that parallel, both born in one way or another of RPG roots, both attempts to show a holy warrior for a god in a logical, effective role that makes them neither arrogant, self-aggrandizing pricks nor eternal nice-guy suckers. I can only hope, in my case, that Kyri springs from the page half as well as Paks, because for many years Paks was what I would point to whenever someone asked "What do YOU mean by 'Paladin'"?
If you haven't read The Deed of Paksenarrion, please, give it a try. The first part – Sheepfarmer's Daughter – is available from the Baen Free Library, here: http://www.baenebooks.com/p-587-sheepfarmers-daughter.aspx
Watch, as a young girl – whose only dream is to become a warrior – becomes a legend.