The Practical Alchemist

The Practical Alchemist, like Mr. Manson’s other puzzle books, introduces a new genre of puzzle. Unlike The Rails I Tote, the 45 individual puzzles of The Practical Alchemist are all connected as part of a single overall puzzle. While not entirely an immersive puzzle experience, The Practical Alchemist is immensely challenging and a ton of fun.

From the Introduction:

“The challenge to you, as a literary Alchemist, is to successfully forge a chain of forty-five transformations from the beginning of the book to the end. There are any number of word chains illustrated in the book that lead from CAT in step one to GOLD on the last page, but there is only one chain that lets you turn your CAT to GOLD without repeating a word.”

“The words are transformed by means of the simple Operations listed below:

ANAGRAM: The letters in the word are rearranged (CAT to ACT, for instance).

ADD ONE: A letter is added to the word (ACT to FACT).

CHANGE ONE: A letter in the word is changed for another (FACT to FACE).

DROP ONE: A letter is subtracted from the word (FACE to ACE).”


Every page offers numerous options for word transformation, many of these options are furthered on the next page often leading the reader further astray. The result is a conceptual maze of word choices which one of these days I would love to map (see Maze Theory for more on conceptual mazes).

The only criticism I have of The Practical Alchemist is the inclusion of the answers in the back. This turns the book from a challenging puzzle to a afternoon lark for all but the most steadfast. Who, upon thinking they have part of a solution, doesn’t want to check and make sure? And every time the reader checks the solution page, the overall challenge and enjoyment of the book is lessened.  I solved this problem in my copy by cutting it out. Not knowing if one is correct regarding the whole path but forging ahead regardless is the greatest pleasure of this masterful puzzle.


 - Images and quoted text copyright 1988 by Christopher Manson


The Practical Alchemist is out of print but used copies can be purchased here:

[Amazon's The Practical Alchemist page]




15 thoughts on “The Practical Alchemist

  1. There is definitely a distinct clue in the text on each page. I put a post-it note on each page and listed all of the word possibilities starting from beginning forward and then the end backwards. The cows behind the gate page was the trickiest for me, but I finally solved it… and THEN realized the very direct clue in each page of text!

    • The text seems to reference multiple objects on each page, and I’ve taken those at hints at possible words to use on each page, that don’t indicate clearly which one is the correct one. Do you mean to say that the text points uniquely to the correct word on each page, in a way distinguishable from false leads?

  2. Does anyone have any clues about how to interpret the text ? Just seems gibberish, I looked up step 1 and then went back to the text and just don’t see what he is trying to do there. Some words are capitalized and some weirds are in weird old English is that supposed to mean something ?

    • I think the capitalization and antiquated language are meant to suggest the text of an old alchemical manual. I’m not sure how accurately it mirrors that kind of work, but I think that’s what it’s meant to suggest.

      As far as the clues: We’ve long talked about “alchemist clues,” without ever giving the sort of full treatment I keep promising to give. But to put it simply (and keeping in mind that this is AS IT SEEMS TO ME), the lines in the text are meant to suggest things on the page, without distinguishing between correct things and incorrect things. A clue that seems to positively suggest an object could still be incorrect, and a clue that seems to negatively refer to an object could be correct. If these clues are helpful at all, it’s because, in the aggregate, they suggest potential words to continue the chain, sometimes drawing attention to the correct one. But there’s not a system in the clues to determine, a priori, which word is he correct one to choose to continue the chain. It’s like Manson is providing a bunch of opportunities for the reader to say, “Ah ha! He’s referring to this thing!” without actually leading them to the correct path–or an incorrect one–in a principled way.

      (The reason we talk about “alchemist clues” in reference to Maze is because, outside of the 16-step solution, much of the cluing seems to function the same way, unpredictably pointing you right ways or wrong ways simply err orrerr orrerr orr

  3. Finally solved this! It took me nine attempts… seven of which were from this evening. As I expected, the dam burst at one point and I had a long string of successes on the third attempt, followed by a steady process of cleanup to nail down the last words I still needed to get the winning chain.

    I’m honestly not sure which page Vance considers to hold “that” word, the one you need a Room 29-like stroke of intuition to grasp. None of them seemed to rely on such a kind of aha! insight as the upside-down door, as far as I gathered. But I’m very grumpy about three of the words in the chain, which struck me as utterly mundane and below the radar – the kind of word, I mean, that you wouldn’t even think to note down as a possible link since it’s too trivial. I’ll give one example among the three I’m talking about: one of the winning words is a body feature(s) that is present on just about every human figure in the book, and there’s absolutely no visual indication that THIS TIME, it’s relevant and needs to be considered as a potential link. You could maybe argue for a textual hint, but it’s a reach. And that happened twice more in this chain of forty-five (not body features specifically, but two other implausibly elementary words).

    But they’re minor blemishes on what was otherwise a great puzzle-solving experience. This was months of fun.

    • It was the page with all the snow that I thought contained the tricky one.

    • Ahh, yeah, that’s definitely another of the three I was talking about. For me, I pretty much had to just muscle my way through to the right word based on what I had so far and what was boiling down to become the only viable option on the next page. If you arrived at that word in another way that was more elegant and Manson-like, I’d love to hear about it.

    • I’d love to have an answer that didn’t involve looking in the back of the book.

    • I guess I see that page as the trickiest, and kind of the key to the whole thing, because it seems to have the fewest images, and therefore serves as a sort of chokepoint on unintended solutions. There are too many images in the book for Manson to try to account for every conceivable chain a reader might concoct, but he can safeguard his preferred solution by tightly checking the connections to one page. I think the snow page is that page, and I found its word to be by far the trickiest.

  4. Should’ve mentioned that I’ve been working on this one for a few months now. I’ve been writing crazy rudimentary Python routines to help me take it down. I find the words and collect them in a list by page, and then Python tries to string together the longest chain it can, starting from the beginning. Haven’t cracked it yet – or, that is, I’ve made some full chains so far, but I can tell from the first couple of words in the solution that I’m not there yet.

    That god damn picture with the lion up there is one of my least favorites. It looks so promising and yet one of my potential chains has been stuck there for a month.

    Really fun, though! I recommend this heartily for anyone who’s looking to follow up on their Maze experience.

    • Yeah, encoded numerically, so you can’t accidentally glance at it and spoil it. I found one solution, translated the first word after “cat”, and found that my solution was already off. So I rewrote a bit of the program to take that word into account, tried again, eventually found a second solution, translated the next word in, and found that my solution was again inadequate (there are a LOT of branching paths). Now I’m trying to put together a third chain, taking what I know into account. I’m going to keep testing my solutions one word at a time, hoping that after a certain point the dam will burst and I’ll clear all the rest of the words in one stroke.

      No way am I gonna cave in on this one – I respect Manson too much, and regret never figuring out the shortest Maze path or any of the final riddle stuff myself.

    • It’s a pretty good puzzle. Elsewhere on this site I’ve given a spoiler as to the one really tricky word in The Practical Alchemist–there are some sort of obscure words hinted at in the book, but there’s definitely a Room 29-like thing going on one of the pages (in the sense that readers will continuously overlook the correct connection between the pages behind and those beyond) that’s going to stymie brute force attempts to compile lists and find connections.

    • Oh, you’ve solved it? Can I ask you for a tiny bit of help? I don’t want any page given away, obviously, but there are two objects which both recur across a handful of pages, and I’ve never come up with a satisfactory term for either of them that would suit the adjacent words on either side. For all I know, neither of them is even in the winning chain, but it would really set my mind at ease to at least label them, if you think you know what Manson intended for them to be called. Can I email you?


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