John Aversin is the only living man known to have slain a dragon. He's not particularly keen to do it again, but when he's summoned to the royal capital to deal with a dragon there, he reluctantly goes. Accompanying him is his wife, Jenny Waynest, a half-educated wizard, who will face her own challenges in the city.
The novel deconstructs a lot of the tropes of knight-vs-dragon legends. Slaying a dragon is difficult, messy work, and definitely not a job for a lone man with a sword. The nobility who inhabit the royal capital are not particularly noble, and when it comes down to it, the dragon is less of a problem than some of the human beings.
Followed years later by a sequel trilogy, consisting of Dragonshadow, Knight of the Demon Queen, and Dragonstar.
Dragonsbane contains examples of:
- Admiring the Abomination: The protagonists never once think of dragons without noting 1. how incredibly lethal they are and 2. how incredibly beautiful they are.
- All Animals Are Dogs: Well, cats, actually. Hambly straight-up says the dragon did something "like a cat" at least five times. The dragon is basically a big, horribly lethal cat whenever he is not airborne.
- Bishounen Line: Applies to dragons, in a way: the youngest are simple, solid colors who develop complex patterns as they age, but these patterns fade over time, meaning the oldest and strongest dragons are solid again.
- Combat Pragmatist: Dragonsbane goes into some detail about how incredibly difficult it is to kill a dragon. John uses tactics that Gareth finds appalling (including shredding the dragon's wings with poisoned harpoons), but John knows that trying to fight a dragon "honorably" is pure suicide.
- Curse Escape Clause: A villainous sorceress performs a spell without 'limitations' and summons a dragon which she refuses to banish. Jenny realizes that she can't banish it, since 'limitations' keep the curse alive and give the caster ongoing control over it.
- Deconstruction: Of classic fantasy clichés, particularly those concerning noble knights fighting dire dragons.
- Dragon Hoard: Dragons hoard gold because their magic resonates with it to produce a narcotic-like effect that is somewhat addictive. Some dragons manage to break this addiction, however.
- The Dragonslayer: John is a deconstructed, Combat Pragmatist version. It's made clear that playing the trope straight and "taking a three-foot steel blade against twenty-five feet of spiked and flaming death" would be suicide.
- Establishing Character Moment: Three of them. We meet John, the Dragonsbane, ankle-deep in muck having an intelligent conversation about pigs. We meet Jenny, weaving very subtle and minor spells to let her safely pass a nest of bandits. And then we meet Gareth, yelling a warning to Jenny at the top of his lungs about said bandits (which naturally ruins all her plans).
- Expecting Someone Taller: Gareth's first encounter with the renowned dragon-slayer, John Aversin, is something of a disappointment. In fact Gareth was literally expecting someone taller, but that's only the start of it: he was expecting a big knight who slew the dragon in single combat out of a Chivalric Romance, and got instead a fairly bookish Combat Pragmatist.
- Family-Unfriendly Death: The methods by which the Dragonsbane got his kill. We're never told all the details, but apparently he crippled its wings, weakened it with poison, and then hacked it to death with an axe.
- Family Versus Career: Instead of giving herself fully to her magic or her family, Jenny tries to do both at once, which means she's neither a strong mage nor a truly devoted wife and mother. Morkeleb's offer to turn her into a dragon, magically powerful and almost omniscient like himself, forces her to choose.
- Heroic Wannabe: Gareth has grown up on tales of heroic deeds like John's, and dreamed of performing a similarly heroic deed himself. He's initially rather put out to learn that even the heroes famed in story don't perform heroic deeds like the ones in the stories.
- I Know Your True Name: Everything, even inanimate objects, have true names. Any spell stronger than basic telepathy (which can be used to discover someone's true name) requires you to Know Your Target's True Name, and you have to power the spell by "sourcing" energy from things you know the true names of. Dragons are immune to magic because nobody can figure out what their true names are.
- Lethal Chef: There's a reason Jenny insists on doing the cooking. John fancies himself a good cook, but you never see anything but black smoke when he does.
- Low Fantasy: As hinted above: it's a self-aware brutal send-up of Heroic Fantasy.
- Master-Apprentice Chain: The usual form magical education takes. Knowing a mage's 'line' tells you all kind of things about the type of spells they are likely to know and avoid.
- Our Dragons Are Different: Dragons are telepathic, magically endowed, and fairly intelligent, if a little isolated and alien in mindset. They have an honest-to-goodness addiction to gold, which is why they tend to hoard it.
- Perception Filter: Jenny Waynest attempts to use one of these to sneak past a group of bandits, but Gareth — not realizing the situation — disrupts the spell.
- Power at a Price: A repeated theme in the books is that power must be paid for. Everyone becomes suspicious when they meet a young mage who has immense power at no apparent cost.
- Properly Paranoid:"Why?" Gareth bleated. "What's wrong? For three days you've been running away from your own shadows..."
"That's right," John agreed, and there was a dangerous edge to his quiet voice. "You ever think what might happen to you if your own shadow caught you? Now ride — and ride silent."
- Running Gag: John and the griddle-cakes.
- Saved to Enslave: As the proverb goes, "Save a dragon, slave a dragon." Morkeleb gives Jenny his True Name so she can work healing magic on her, which she only later discovers has bound him to her.