The United States, and other parts of the world, were changed forever when a glowing red light in the sky known as Calamity gave normal people superhuman powers and abilities. These people came to be known to humanity as Epics. The story is told through the perspective of David, an orphaned teenager living in Newcago . Newcago is ruled by the extremely powerful Epic named Steelheart, who has created a society run by other powerful Epics, with normal people living with normal jobs. Steelheart is apparently invulnerable, is able to fly, can hurl blasts of energy, and can turn inanimate matter to steel; he has turned all of Chicago to steel for kilometers around and into the ground. Newcago is also shrouded in darkness by Steelheart’s lieutenant, Nightwielder. Compared to other places in what was the United States, war torn, lawless and ravaged by warring Epics, Newcago is well run, with normal people generally having access to food, water, electricity, jobs, etc.
David’s father was murdered by Steelheart around the time of the collapse. When David was eight, he and his father were at a bank which was attacked by an Epic named Deathpoint who had the power to skeletonize people by pointing at them. Half the bank was killed when Steelheart came in and Deathpoint started to argue with him. During this time, David’s father grabbed one of the dead guard’s guns and prepared himself to kill Deathpoint, believing that Steelheart was a hero. When his father shot Deathpoint, the bullet grazed Steelheart’s cheek and caused him to bleed. Enraged, Steelheart killed David’s father and then proceeded to destroy the bank. David crawled into one of the vaults, which ultimately saved him from falling debris and isolated him from Steelheart’s energy blasts. Later, David was recovered by rescue workers, but ran away scared. This also saved him because Steelheart came back with another Epic named Faultline and sank the entire building into the ground, killing all other survivors. David later guessed that Steelheart did this because everyone in the bank had watched him bleed and had learned that his invincibility had a weakness. David dedicates his life to learning about the Epics’ power, Steelheart’s weakness, and about a group of normal humans dedicated to killing Epics, called the Reckoners, so that he can get revenge on Steelheart.
Near the start of the book, David makes contact with the Reckoners when he interferes with one of their missions. Among this group are the leader and founder of the Reckoners, Jonathan Phaedrus, who is called Prof throughout the book, Tia, Abraham, Cody, and the newest recruit, Megan. They first take David along with them because they fear that he could be an Epic who was sent to spy on them. The Reckoners plan to leave him behind after learning that he was a normal person who only studied them long enough to learn their habits. David convinces them to bring him along and work with him when he tells them that he has seen Steelheart bleed. After going on a mission to retrieve his notes, David convinces the Reckoners to try to kill Steelheart.