The heroine of poet Patience Agbabi’s debut novel, for eight-to-12 year olds, is special in several ways. Twelve-year-old Elle lives in a British town with her Nigerian grandmother; Mum died in a car crash and Dad left soon after. Elle is autistic, and can find ordinary life a bit tricky. She is a “Leapling” too, born on 29 February, and – last but definitely not least – she is one of the few such children who have “The Gift”, an ability to leap through time.
Elle is a pupil at Intercalary International, a school for kids with a variety of special needs, but things aren’t going well for her. Learning to control The Gift is hard, and she is being bullied. She’s looking forward to a school trip, though, a “Leap” to the HQ of the Time Squad in the year 2048. They are the guardians of chronology, an elite group of time travellers who stop criminals from changing the past and rupturing the space-time continuum. There’s a strong environmental theme here – the future is pretty much carbon neutral and meat free, and the Time Squad is tough on all eco-crimes.
The story’s inciting incident is a mysterious text from the future, evidence that something dodgy is going on. Before long, Elle discovers that other Leaplings have gone missing, and that a major temporal conspiracy is under way. As with any conspiracy, there are two big questions – who can she trust, and how can she defeat the bad guys? And, of course, it turns out that there’s a link between the two.
I wanted to like The Infinite, and it has a lot going for it. Elle is an engaging, self-aware character who knows she can be overly obsessive and the environmental theme will strike a chord with young readers. But the plot is thin, occasionally confusing, and often gets lost completely. There’s nowhere near enough suspense, an essential component of storytelling for this age group.
The best bits are when Elle is with lovable, sharp-tongued Grandma, who really comes off the page. But those are too scarce. I can’t help thinking Grandma would probably have sorted out the whole thing in double-quick time.
• The Infinite is published by Canongate (£6.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.