Over at The Silver Key and Dweomera Lagomorpha about some of the recent trends in fantasy literature. This started as a post on Brian's website, but it outgrew that, so I moved it over here.
The thing that's really clarified this discussion to me is the comment by Richard Morgan that Brian quoted - something along the lines of this not being fantasy for 13-year-olds.
I think that fundamentally what we see as "high fantasy": the Lord of the Rings, the Ranger's Apprentice, Harry Potter - this is a very 13-year-old view of the world. The clear good/evil dichotomy, a heroes always win assumption, sexless "romance". It's a very "immature" perspective. Of course, many of these books explore other things - the Lord of the Rings deals extensively with friendship, loyalty, leadership and honor - but the context, the world and it's assumptions - they're simplistic.
Lots of fantasy book reminds me of a terrible Arthurian movie from the early '90's called "First Knight". It's medieval england, but everyone is clean, the good guys wear shiny armor and crisp blue uniforms, and the bad guys wear black furs. It's flat - it leaves no lasting impression. It's the middle ages as seen by the SCA. Excalibur, on the other hand, is not clean, the heroes are not clear, good things don't always happen to the good guys. It's more "adult" and a better movie for it.
As we get older, we realize things about the world: we realize that being a good person does not mean necessarily that good things happen to us, we learn that there are many perspectives on things, we hopefully learn about sex, and hopefully we don't learn too much about violence, but we know that there are lots of things in life that a 13-year-old has no awareness of.
So when Morgan talks about The Steel Remains as "adult" - he's right. It depicts a world much more like the one we know as adults. Sure - the violence is a bit much, and the sex scenes are maybe a bit gratuitous. In terms of the world that it presents - complete with grit, sex, religious extremism, selfishness and violence - it's a grown-up world. It's not automatically better because of that, but it feels more tangible to me - the taste of it is clearer. Yes, the Lord of the Rings is also very deep and powerful, with a clear and detailed world. But The Steel Remains didn't take 12 years to write (or require 30 years of world-building).
The Burning Land IS a better example of how to create an adult fantasy (although you could easily argue that it's Historical Fiction, which is a bit of a different genre). It's a bit less gratuitous, a bit more focussed, and with characters that I empathize with a bit more. It uses the same ingredients, though - Morgan just likes more of the sex and violence and less of the finely-researched historical detail. He's a better futurist, anyways, while Cornwell is a better historian. They both write books that are more "adult" than a lot of fantasy, which is why I read and enjoy their work.