The main character is Jane, a human girl in a world of faeries and magical beings, who's a child slave in a factory that produces parts for Iron Dragons — that world's equivalent to fighter jets. One day, during a failed escape attempt, she finds a discarded grimoire, which turns out to be a operational manual to an Iron Dragon. This leads her to discover an old, broken down dragon who's Not Quite Dead. Melanchthon, Dragon #7332, offers to help her escape if she helps him restore his basic functions.
The story follows Jane as she tries to carve out some sort of life for herself in a world where humans are near-powerless rarities, first with the help of Melanchton, then without him when he abandons her, then with him again when he decides it's time to carry out his master plan: the destruction of Spiral Castle, and with it, the entire fantasy world.
The Iron Dragon's Daughter is, at its heart, a subversion of the Plucky Heroine archetype, as Jane is nothing special (as a human, she has no innate magic, nor any of the physical attribute of other species) and stays that way, even as she's drawn into Melanchthon's web of madness.
The Iron Dragon's Daughter contains examples of:
- A.I. Is a Crapshoot: Magical items given sentience are prone to not working correctly or at all out of sheer spite (Or just being JerkAsses)
- Break the Cutie: Jane's breakdown after seeing the names of her friends listed among the dead after the Teind.
- Conceive and Kill: Gargoyle mating habits involve strict combat in order that only the best and toughest males reach and mate with the females... who promptly kill and devour their mates after insemination, due to being "tired and in need of nutrients for their pregnancies". The male gargoyle who relates this notes that the females swear mating is the ultimate pleasure, before snidely noting that they would say that.
- Death by Sex: At one point, Jane lures a man into her embrace by promising a Comic Sutra sex act, only to use the sex to power a magic rite that links her lover to Melcanthon so that the dragon can completely consume his lifeforce in order to recharge. She then tosses her victim's gear into a closet overflowing with male clothing, making it clear he's not the first of her victims.
- Deconstructor Fleet: While the book is a savage reworking of the standard Trapped in Another World plot, tropes throughout fantasy literature are invoked and warped.
- Deus Sex Machina: Sex magic is much easier to learn and master than "true" magic.
- Dungeon Punk: Melds fantastic, faerie tale setting with a roughly modernistic level of technology by magitek — the aforementioned "dragons as sapient, magical fighter-jets", for example.
- Evil vs. Evil: Melanchthon duels a hunter sent to catch Jane.
- The Fair Folk:
- Subverted. Elves just come off kind of like an exaggeration of amoral, decadent rich people.
- The novel is set in the Unseleigh Court, which explains a lot. The Seleigh Court exists in the book as well, albeit offscreen, and the two are locked in apparent open warfare:Melanchthon: You may call me Death if you wish. I killed your kind by the thousands in Avalon.
- Fantasy Counterpart Culture: There are no direct parallels, but much of Faerie seems to resemble the NE United States circa 1975.
- Five-Finger Discount: Jane's preferred method of shopping.
- Hand of Glory: Jane crafts a Hand to steal from Galiagante.
- Humanity Is Superior: Inverted. A human's one edge (no True Name to manipulate) is offset by the utter lack of innate magical or physical special traits.
- I Know Your True Name: Played straight, except for Jane (who, as a human, doesn't have one.)
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: It turns out that pretty much every time Jane tried to say "Screw Destiny", she ended up scuttling the Goddess' plans for her to experience some happiness and bring same to those around her.
- Open Secret
- Most everyone in the word (save for Jane, of course) knows that astrology doesn't work. However, since any number of corporate interests find belief in astrology useful, the schools teach it as fact.
- The fact that contraceptive spells will occasionally and randomly fail, even if cast properly, because the goddess that powers the spells wants children. Most users know this, but the spells work reliably enough that they take their chances that their number won't come up before they're ready to be parents.
- One Hero, Hold the Weaksauce: Jane is immune to defensive fetishes because usually they are not being designed against humans due to their rarity in the world.
- Our Dragons Are Different: they're sentient, sapient (and filled with rage) fighter jets in dragon form.
- Reincarnation Romance: Jane and "Needle". She sleeps with two of his incarnations and intentionally avoids a third, to try and keep him from the bad end of the others.note
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Jane is told by a female elf noble that as a human, the best she can hope for in life is to be a brood mare for the elves until "Sleeping Beauty's Disease" takes her.
- Sex as Rite-of-Passage / I Call Him "Mister Happy": Jane goes through a "naming ceremony" to render "Little Jane" a "friend for life." Males name their dangly bits as well, but the text never states whether not they have a similar rite.
- Sex Magic: The protagonist, Jane, learns to use sex magic to boost her own spellcasting ability.
- Shout-Out: At one point, Jane activates a hand of glory by inscribing it with the mystical initials "s f w a".
- Star-Crossed Lovers: Jane and Rooster, Peter, Puck, and Rocket - who are all incarnations of the same soul.
- Take That!: In interviews, Swanwick has claimed that The Iron Dragon's Daughter was his response to derivative mass-market fantasy.
- Villain Protagonist: Jane devolves into this in the end. She becomes a Serial Killer who uses sex magic to kill men and feed their souls to the healing Melanchthon, and ultimately joins with him in an effort to destroy all of creation, in essence as a way to get back at the creator-goddess for her awful life.
- Weirdness Censor: The run-down cottage Jane lives in after her escape is really Melanchthon in disguise.
- Wizarding School: Unsurprisingly, given the strong Dungeon Punk / Magitek streak in this setting, both the high school and college have shades of this.
- Word Salad Philosophy: Whenever characters lapse into prophetic trances, this is what normally results. However, the "prophecies" are just a farrago of media from our world, ranging from ad jingles to political stump speeches to the first three minutes of Neil Armstrong's first transmission from the moon.