The Dream Traveler’s Game – Ted Dekker and HR Hutzel

The Boy and His Song Published by Scripturo on October 17, 2023
Genres: Children's, Fiction, Christian
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Three years have passed since Theo traveled to another dimension and discovered his identity in the Light. He’s more mature now and terrible trouble has swallowed him once more. When all hope seems to be lost, Theo is sucked into a virtual reality game set in an entirely new medieval world that is descending into chaos, as a small group of rebels seek to rescue their kingdom from the dark lord Marsuuv's rule. There, Theo, now a member of the rebels, must discover who he really is beyond the game—a fourteen year old boy in Florida who is a child of the light. A thrilling discovery of truth, perfect for young readers in today’s chaotic world. Ages 8 and older.

In late 2018, Ted Dekker published an experimental foray into self-published children’s literature. It was really just a passion project that he wanted to do with his daughter, Kara. And it was wildly successful. Hundreds of thousands of copies sold. While Ted had dabbled in self-publishing with some other projects—namely his non-fiction works The Forgotten Way and The Way of Love—the commercial success of this series and the changing nature of traditional publishing led Dekker to move solely into self-publishing. In the past five years, with the exception of Play Dead, Dekker has focused on co-authorships and middle grade fiction.

Despite its overall success, I must admit that I wasn’t a huge fan of the four-book The Dream Traveler’s Quest series. The message—a convoluted and nuanced spirituality—overshadowed the story. The story itself was wildly uneven. And it clashed with other established lore within the world of the Circle. But I also realize that not all Dekker books are written personally for me and, if you look at the sales and the reviews from pleased parents and grandparents, it’s clear that Dekker was filling a Christian middle-grade niche that needed filling. When reviewing the original series, I had two main comments: 1) This feels like a video game plot rather than a story plot and 2) If you aren’t going to hold to the worldbuilding of Other Earth, put the story somewhere else.

Five years later, Ted Dekker has returned with a new coauthor and three new books for the series. 1) It’s set within a video game and 2) While there are characters from Other Earth, this story is set in the video game world of Viren. And I will say that those changes, for me, made a difference. It helped set the expectation and tone for the series. Dekker’s newest coauthor is H.R. Hutzel—who also partnered with him on the three-book middle-grade series Journey to Impossible Places. Hutzel has written a couple other YA supernatural thrillers—Anointed, Witness, and The Story of Life but has never been traditionally published. It’s an interesting collaboration and its interesting that after five years Dekker has chosen to return to Annelee and Theo and the Dream Traveler world.

The Dream Traveler’s Game is labeled as books 5, 6, and 7 of the Dream Traveler’s series, but they could be easily read as a standalone. This time, instead of being sucked into Other Earth through a Book of History, Theo is sucked into the video game world of Viren, created by Talya to help Theo remember the lessons he’d forgotten in the three years since his adventures in Other Earth. Think of it as the difference between the Robin Williams Jumanji and the Dwayne Johnson Jumanji.

The setup of the series is rather convoluted. While there is an insistence that this is just a game (created by a friend and mentor, no less), there’s also the insistence that the evil of Marsuuv is real and that Theo will actually die if he dies in the game. The setup of the game is that Theo must save the princess from the clutches of Marsuuv, find a lost book, and remember the lessons of his past. This will happen in three stages and he must get to a waypoint before his power/energy bar (represented by bars of tattoos on his arm) fades completely. In each stage, he can take on the avatar of a different person with a different backstory and different skills. When he becomes a new avatar, he’ll forget what he learned as the old avatar and the old avatar will become an NPC in the game. It’s an interesting premise, but the end result is that for each book, both the reader and the character are getting used to new characters. There cannot be any character depth because the characters are always changing. And despite the previous characters still existing as NPCs, they never feature in the story afterward even when they should be in the same general area as the current character. And none of the other characters in the story think it’s odd that so many people in their company are named Theo? The whole video game setup is one that could have worked, but ends up being both overly-complex and under-realized.

Unlike the previous series, which was very didactic and at least clear about teaching the Five Seals (of The Way of Love), The Dream Traveler’s Game is rather vague on what the spiritual teaching is supposed to be. I mean, it’s repeated ad nauseum because the characters keep forgetting because they change, but what it means or how it even affects the game isn’t always clear. It comes together better in the end, but through the journey there isn’t clarity of purpose. The characters are confusedly bumbling throughout their world and so are the readers. It’s all Deus ex Talyas that bring the story together.

In the end, in thinking of The Dream Traveler’s Game as a whole, it just doesn’t cohere for me. It’s a nuanced and vague spiritual lesson told through a complicated story structure with a tropish, simplistic plot and shallow characters—characters who had more depth in the previous series. Dekker’s other middle-grade work has been enjoyable. This series, for whatever reason, continues to struggle.