I quite like this. Even in a fantasy-based context the idea of deadly wars and constant mortal peril feels somewhat unrealistic when every (or almost every) major character survives.
When I was writing up the six reviews of the Codex Alera books I never used the term. They’re highly enjoyable, certain elements do make the skin crawl and they feature political plotting, but they lack a certain cold, negative realism.
I think grittiness indicates the writer is aiming to reflect the unpleasant side of human nature as realistically as possible, warts and all. It doesn’t necessarily need things like sex or grotesque punishments/torture, but a realistic risk of death or serious injury and characters with as much vice as virtue are probably required.
As well as trying to portray human nature in all its horribleness, the effects of the fantasy world (often basically Middle Ages England) should be considered. People should mostly have yellow teeth and pockmarks, and child mortality should be sky high. Plus, healthy tans would be from working in the fields as a peasant, whereas the well-to-do would have paler skin (and being fat would be a sign of prosperity rather than a daily overdose of pie and cake).
It’s quite interesting to note the long term change in fantasy from the black and white, good versus evil morality of Tolkien and CS Lewis to the grey, ambiguous worlds of Abercrombie and Martin. In the same way, the worlds are less often populated with heroic, virtuous chaps and more often by the ruthless and the sinful (in short, they’re more realistic).
I have some difficulty deciding whether Bane of Souls should be described as ‘gritty’. I won’t give too much away, but the storyline revolves around a spate of murders, and the people who die aren’t just Anonymous Peasant #32. On the other hand, sex is alluded to but not featured explicitly, and the swearing is minimal (this wasn’t a conscious choice, it just seemed to clash with the dialogue style I opted for).