When deciding the future of a community, everyone deserves a seat at the table.
That's the message imparted by A Seat for the Rabble, a new epic fantasy novel written by alumnus Ryan Schuette ('07).
His story focuses on Loran, a kingdom on the brink of collapse, and the fight to restore the voice of its peasant class. Schuette credits his time at UNT and abroad as hugely influential on the work.
"I'm so grateful that I went to UNT because it set the course for everything I did in my life," Schuette says. "It was just a perfect laboratory for me to figure myself out."
Schuette started his UNT journey as a graphic design major. Raised in League City, he sought a big-city education with a small-town feel and cost.
"I took a class of his in 2004 on government, and that was it," Schuette says. "He made me realize I love politics and the philosophies that underpin it."
Schuette would later put his talent in art to good use as a cartoonist for the North Texas Daily, part of the Mayborn School of Journalism, where he also served as a reporter and opinion editor.
"I really got my feet wet at the NT Daily," Schuette says. "I found out I excelled at interviewing, doing research and crafting a narrative based on what I've learned."
After graduating in 2007, Schuette co-founded the Kroo Bay Initiative, a nonprofit that specialized in assisting with the development needs of a community in Sierra Leone. The organization allowed UNT students to gain experience managing a nonprofit and travel to Kroo Bay, where they delivered aid under guidance from Dr. Doug Henry, a professor in the Department of Anthropology.
"We intended to create a class-to-work program at UNT," Schuette says. "Students got to experience what this other culture is like and what it means to actually work with these people hand in hand."
The Kroo Bay Initiative was renamed Engaged Beyond Borders in 2012 and it folded in 2018.
However, Schuette's time in Africa was not quite over. With the help of Dr. James Duban, director of the Office for Nationally Competitive Scholarships, he secured a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship to live and work in Uganda for a year. As a 2008-2009 Rotary Ambassador, he studied at Makerere University in Kampala.
"I was just drawn to understand that part of the world," Schuette says. "It was a transformative year for me."
Schuette served as a freelance reporter for The Daily Monitor and The Independent, a Ugandan newsmagazine. He reported on overcrowded prisons, sexual assault and other issues in Kampala, the nation's capital.
But it was a near-death brush with malaria in Sierra Leone that shaped how he'd later approach fantasy fiction.
"Malaria is no walk in the park," Schuette says. "It's the flu times 10 and it kills millions of people every year."
A Kroo Bay Initiative volunteer and his cousins saved Schuette's life, rushing him to a hospital and hauling him up several flights of stairs before sunrise. He says he felt humbled by the unconditional support he received from them and even strangers in Sierra Leone and Uganda.
"These people may not have had much money, but they were so wealthy in terms of friendship and family, which matters far more," Schuette says.
After reporting for NPR in Washington, D.C., Schuette decided to try something new. Inspired by fantasy series like Game of Thrones, The Lord of the Rings and Dragonlance Chronicles, he wrote A Seat for the Rabble, mixing politics and fantasy.
"I returned to fantasy because it's such a great vehicle for important truths, and I wanted to write something that spoke to the average American," Schuette says.
Schuette based Loran's peasant class on his own experiences in Uganda and Sierra Leone.
"The peasants in the novel are rich in that social capital, like I found in Africa," Schuette says. "Commoners make small sacrifices that make life worth living, unlike the wealthy, who cannibalize each other."
Since publication, A Seat for the Rabble has won several accolades, surpassing more than 400 competing titles to top Independent Book Review's "The Best Books We Read in 2023." Schuette's illustrations for the novel also received honorable mention in the globally competitive Illustrators of the Future Contest.
The sequel to A Seat for the Rabble, titled An End to Kings, is scheduled to be released in 2024.
In the meantime, Schuette is enjoying his career as an author and artist.
"Even the book cover was inspired by what I saw during a UNT study abroad trip to the United Kingdom," he says. "I'm just so proud of UNT's influences on this novel."