by Lois McMaster Bujold
when i was younger, i was always confused by the moniker of "Adult Fantasy" (less used today, but more common decades ago). i assumed it meant sex and possibly violence, but that was almost never the case... what it ended up meaning to me was BORING, I Can't Finish This.
well now that i am clearly an adult, i get it. for example, Curse of Chalion. this is definitely an Adult Fantasy. it does not feature sex - if anything, it is rather pleasingly old-fashioned and discreet about sex. and it does not feature extreme violence - the violent moments are just that, 'moments', and there is no juvenile dwelling on the pornography of blood, guts, & pain (although there is definitely blood, guts, and pain in our protagonist's life).
Curse of Chalion is Adult Fantasy in a few ways.
first, it is all about the interior life and the slow-burning changes in a broken man. he is a man in constant turmoil - one who lives in fear due to his tormented past and the betrayals that haunt him, one whose path appears to be a slow, step-by-step attempt at staying under the radar while looking out for the interests of those he loves. Cazaril is a hero, but not an easy one. action is not his automatic response (and so when it does occur, it is genuinely thrilling). the reader will find little knee-jerk wish fulfillment in his carefully-considered feints & moves. he is one of the most thoughtful protagonists i've come across in fantasy and a truly Grown Up, Adult Hero.
second, the pacing is very deliberate. this is not a novel where action jumps off the page in a big rush. it moves at a conservative pace, bringing the reader along on Cazaril's slow journey. it forces you into understanding what makes the man, why he acts the way he does, before finally picking up the pace and beginning Adventure Time - if you can even call such a thoughtful progression An Adventure. it seems almost purposefully designed to throw off the rather shallow needs of the thrill-seeking reader (and i include myself in that group). the book is thoughtful.
third, religion is front and center. there is magic in Curse of Chalion - Death Magic even - but it is linked entirely with the worship of 5 gods & goddesses. it is a painful sort of magic. it is a deep and rich and nuanced portrait of religion. i loved it. the novel's intense and nuanced focus on faith and spirituality was my favorite part of the experience.
and finally, it features the inclusion of a major supporting character who is queer. it did not feel arbitrary, the character is not there as some form of liberal tokenism, there was no stereotypical nonsense to annoy me, and the character and his actions are completely organic to the story - he is not shoe-horned into the narrative. as a queer, i really appreciate this sensitive, realistic, and exploitation-free approach.